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Orange Shirt Day

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Every child matters.” 

Phyllis Webstad

Orange Shirt Day is a day when we honour the Indigenous children who were taken by the Canadian Government and forced to attend Residential Schools throughout Canada. It is the living legacy of the St. Joseph Mission (SJM) Residential School Commemoration Project and Reunion. These events took place in Williams Lake, BC, Canada in May 2013. They were meant to honour the students both living and lost that attended SJM to understand how these schools have impacted their lives. As spokesperson for the Reunion group leading up to the events, former SJM Residential School student Phyllis Webstad told her story of her first day at residential school when her shiny new orange shirt, bought by her grandmother, was taken from her as a six-year old girl. Her account reflects more than the “removal” of her new favourite shirt, but of the “stripping of a way of life” that she experienced while being taken from her family.

What is a Residential School?

Residential Schools were Church-run institutions set up by the Canadian Government disguised as an ‘educational centre’ with the objective to assimilate Indigenous children into Eurocentric ideals, including Christianity, Capitalism, and Corporal Punishment. These schools were put into place after the signing of the historical Treaties starting in the 1880’s and occurring until 1996. This allowed the Canadian government to forcibly separate Indigenous children from their families throughout the school year (September to June) stripping them of their traditional language, and other ways of life often being punished with harsh consequences if they did not comply. 

September 30th. You may also choose a date closer to that day that corresponds to the workweek. This day was chosen because it represents the time of year historically when children were taken to Residential Schools. As such, we celebrate Orange Shirt Day early in the school year as students are beginning to settle into their classrooms to provide an opportunity to set the standard of anti-racism and anti-bullying in the classroom for Indigenous and non-Indigenous students in schools. It provides the chance for students to learn about the harsh reality of Canada’s anti-Indigenous history in the spirit of reconciliation as we learn to mitigate systemic racism.

Orange Shirt Day is designed to commemorate the Residential School experience, to witness and honour the healing journey of the survivors and their families, and to commit to the ongoing process of reconciliation. We celebrate Orange Shirt Day to acknowledge that ‘Every Child Matters,’ as coined by Phyllis Webstad, especially those who suffered and were lost at these schools; the survivors who experienced the harsh reality of being taken from their families and who are currently reintegrating themselves into their traditional culture. This special activity day is meant to open the door to understanding the effects and ongoing legacy of Indian Residential Schools in Canada. It is a chance to acknowledge the intergenerational trauma that comes with this era and see how this translates through various issues experiences by Indigenous people today. Orange Shirt Day is the catalyst, the window of opportunity, the chance to learn, with an open heart.

Everyone who wants to participate in learning more about the history of Canada’s Indigenous People can celebrate Orange Shirt Day, including those looking for ways to advocate for honouring the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and those who have families connected to these Residential Schools and want their families history shared.

You can celebrate Orange Shirt Day at home, at work, on the street, or Trickster’s FAVOURITE place, in school!

Orange Shirt Day can be celebrated in so many ways. Wearing an Orange Shirt is a great start in honouring the experiences of the children who were taken to these schools. Along with this you can educate yourself on the history of Canada’s First Peoples, pre and post colonization, listening to their stories and their lived experiences. You can also celebrate by learning about the ongoing effects of Residential School and talking to your classmates, your teachers, your friends, and your family. 

Event Days give you the ability to not only explore Orange Shirt Day, but also an opportunity to broaden that learning into experiential projects which can be shared. You can share them throughout your school, with other classes, and even more broadly if you choose. The ability for your students to not only have a project of their own, but to be able to see what other students were able to come up with, broadens the viewpoints and creates more dialogue surrounding the issues.

One size does not fit all

How you and your school decide to use the suggested activities, performances, and resources will depend completely on what you and your peers are comfortable with, and the time you have available to designate to the project(s). Trickster is also available to consult with if you would like extra help, resource connections, and/or coordination. You can go big, involving every class with different projects, performances and events throughout the school, or, you can go as small as just doing an activity listed in the materials for your own class which you believe will help them connect to the subject matter. 

Due to the circumstances of COVID19, not everything suggested will be possible, and many will need to be adjusted to suit your needs and comfort level. As we hope to carry this forward, and know that schools are looking to future projects much further down the road, we do want to plant the seeds for what those event days might look like too. There will be suggestions throughout on how you can modify activities for social distancing, but you are also able at any point to choose and modify activities and projects to achieve the level of safety your school is comfortable with.

Why Teachers Love It

Our residency was a unifying and motivating experience that we used as a way to begin our year long inquiry about children’s rights.

— Lisa McConnell, Teacher, North Haven School, Calgary

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