Orange Shirt Day – a look back

For several years now, Orange Shirt Day and its call for justice, ‘Every Child Matters’ has been commemorated by Canadians to honour Indian Residential School survivors, the children who never made it back home, their families and the broader Indigenous community who still bear the scars from a legacy of harm.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has labeled the policies that brought about the Residential school system a cultural genocide. The schools were run by Canada and the churches, with over 60 per cent of them Catholic churches. An estimated 150,000 Indigenous children were, in some cases forcibly, removed from their homes by the RCMP to attend these schools between the 1870s and 1990s. The last Indian Residential school closed in 1996.

September 30 is a day to honour Every Child Matters | Photo courtesy of Orange Shirt Day

Every Child Matters

September 30 is a day to honour the healing journeys of residential school survivors and their families. It is also a time to engage in meaningful discussions about the history and legacy of the residential school system.

Originally envisioned as a way to keep the conversations going about all aspects of Residential Schools in Williams Lake and the Cariboo Region of British-Columbia, Canada in May 2013, Orange Shirt Day has since expanded into a movement across Canada and beyond.

The recognition grew out of Phyllis (Jack) Webstad’s experiences and that of other residential school survivors who attended St. Joseph’s Mission near Williams Lake. Webstad, a Northern Secwpemc (Shuswap) from the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation (Canoe Creek Indian Band), who comes from mixed Secwepemc and Irish/French heritage, was born in Dog Creek and lives in Williams Lake, B.C.

Over the years, Webstad has earned diplomas in business administration from the Nicola Valley Institute of Technology and in accounting from Thompson Rivers University. Webstad received the 2017 TRU Distinguished Alumni Award for her unprecedented impact on local, provincial, national and international communities through the sharing of her orange shirt story.

An orange shirt to go to school

Two books by Phyllis Webstad: The Orange Shirt Story and Phyllis’s Orange Shirt for younger children. | Photos courtesy of Medicine Wheel Publishing

Orange Shirt Day’s story centres around the experience of Webstad (and others) who attended the Mission Indian Residential School in 1973/1974. She was six years old at the time and lived with her grandmother on the Dog Creek reserve. Her grandmother never had much money yet she managed to buy her granddaughter a new outfit to go to the Mission school. At the Robinson’s store Webstad picked out a nice shiny orange shirt. But once she got to school, all her clothes were taken away including her orange shirt. She never wore it again and she didn’t understand why they wouldn’t give back since it was hers.

Since then, the colour orange has reminded her of that episode in her life and how her feelings didn’t seem to matter at all, that no one cared. It left her feeling worthless.

If at first the colour orange symbolized that she did not matter, it has since become a symbol of hope and reconciliation.

Orange Shirt Day books

Webstad has now published two books, the Orange Shirt Story and Phyllis’s Orange Shirt for younger children.

The Orange Shirt Story is designed as a textbook for students in Grades 5 and older and is also an excellent resource for parents and the general public. The publisher, Medicine Wheel Education, has an optional companion resource for teachers who are looking for more information on how to use the book with their students.

15 per cent of the book proceeds go to the Orange Shirt Society to help support their work.

As founder and ambassador of the Orange Shirt Society, Webstad now tours the country telling her story, raising awareness about the impacts of the residential school system.

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