Feature – Fall 2019

Photo Credit: Algoma DSB

The Story of Orange Shirt Day: September 30, 2019

By Chief Elaine Johnston, Serpent River First Nation, and Indigenous Trustees’ Council Chair

Thank you to all school boards, teachers, students and to all who organized and participated in events or wore their orange shirts on September 30. Every year on September 30, people are encouraged to wear orange shirts to acknowledge the legacy of Residential School survivors. This year, events were planned throughout Canada to witness and honour the healing journey of Residential School survivors and their families and to commit to the ongoing process of reconciliation.

All elementary schools received a copy of the book, “The Orange Shirt Day Story” by Phyllis (Jack) Webstad, along with an education kit. Webstad, from Dog Creek, B.C., shared the following story:

“I went to the Mission for one year. I had just turned six years old. We never had very much money and there was no welfare, but somehow my granny managed to buy me a new outfit to go the Mission School. I remember going to Robinson’s store and picking out a shiny orange shirt. It had eyelets and lace and I felt so pretty in that shirt and excited to be going to school! Of course, when I got to the Mission, they stripped me and took away my clothes, including the orange shirt. I never saw it again, except on other kids. I didn’t understand why they wouldn’t give it back to me, it was mine! Since then the colour orange has always reminded me of that and how my feelings didn’t matter, how no one cared and how I felt like I was worth nothing. I finally got it – that the feeling of worthlessness and insignificance, ingrained in me from my first day at the mission, affected the way I lived my life for many years…I want my orange shirt back!”

The Government of Canada offered an apology to Indigenous people for the residential school system that existed from 1884 to 1996. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) then documented many of the survivor stories and offered recommendations for a new relationship, which are now called the TRC Calls to Action.

September 30 was chosen for Orange Shirt Day because this is the time of year when children were taken from their homes to attend residential schools. September also marks the start of a new school year and new opportunities to work on anti-racism and anti-bullying policies. Orange Shirt Day opens the door to conversation and discussion about the effects of the Residential School experience. All Canadians can build bridges with each other for reconciliation. This is a day to say with conviction that “Every Child Matters” and an opportunity for everyone to come together in the spirit of reconciliation and hope. Children were taken from their families to attend school, many under force, so it is appropriate that schools honour this day so that this will never happen again.

Chief Elaine Johnston, Chair of OPSBA’s Indigenous Trustees’ Council
Indigenous Trustee, Algoma District School Board

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