“Orange Shirt Day” recognizes trauma inflicted upon children in residential schools

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Every child matters

September 30 has officially been recognized as “Orange Shirt Day” to acknowledge the harm done to Indigenous children who lived in residential schools. Annually, people all across the country don their orange shirts to show support for Indigenous children that were stripped of their culture in residential schools. 

The event was started in 2013 by Phyllis Webstad, a residential school survivor who wanted to raise awareness of the trauma inflicted upon children who were taken from their families and often abused in the schools. “Every Child Matters” is written in blue print across the shirt signifying the message behind the organization.  

Her inspiration for Orange Shirt Day was sparked by the memory of the orange shirt that was stripped from her when she entered the Mission school in British Columbia. Her grandmother had saved enough money for her to get a new outfit for the first day of school and she was immediately drawn to the joyful orange color, but when she arrived at the school, all of her clothes were taken and she never saw the orange shirt again

Phyllis’ experience in the residential school sparked a long health recovery. She had her first child at age 13 and she explained how difficult it was to be a mother, not only because she was so young, but because she never watched somebody nurture a child before. Both her mother and grandmother had been taken to residential schools and never had the opportunity to raise their children in a loving home. 

Residential schools were first implemented by John A. Macdonald in the 1870s in a violent attempt to “civilize” First Nations children. Many Indigenous children were ripped away from their families and sent to the schools to be assimilated to European standards. The results of the residential schools were disastrous, out of the 150,000 children that entered the school, approximately 6,000 children died. Due to insufficient record taking this is only an estimated amount. Many children experienced physical and sexual abuse during their time at the schools and due to the underfunding from the government many children died from malnutrition.

The last residential school closed in 1996 in Saskatchewan, only 24 years ago. In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper acknowledged the harm done to Indigenous peoples of Canada. 

While the apology was necessary, it has been criticized by Indigenous communities who want to see action on behalf of the Government of Canada for programming to aid First Nations communities. Indigenous Peoples in Canada show a higher level of chronic illness, unemployment rates, suicide rates, and incarceration rates. They also rank lower in areas of education and substantial living areas because of systemic barriers. 

The assimilation practices inflicted upon Indigenous people have resulted in intergenerational trauma. Orange Shirt Day tells the stories of those who experienced the horrors of residential schools, while acknowledging the trauma that has been passed down to the present. 

Phyllis now speaks all over the country about her experiences in residential school and has written a book called The Orange Shirt Story, as well as a children’s book called Phyllis’s Orange Shirt. Her organization allows for the “recognition of the harm the residential school system did to children’s sense of self-esteem and well being, and as an affirmation of our commitment to ensure that everyone around us matters.”

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