By Erin Knutson
Phyllis Webstad remembers being dehumanized as a six year-old child when she was stripped of a special orange shirt that her grandmother gave her to commemorate the first day of school. That school was St. Joseph Mission, a residential school for Indigenous children, founded in Williams Lake.
Ms. Webstad never saw the shirt again and the colour continues to remind her of the painful memory. From this demoralizing experience, Orange Shirt Day was born.
“I am humbled and honoured that my orange shirt story is important to so many people and that it is a vehicle for change. My orange shirt story opens the door to discussion on a not so easy to talk about subject — Indian Residential Schools,” said Ms. Webstad in a press release. “Seeing the children in their orange shirts and learning about the true history of Canada’s First People gives me hope that the lives of my grandsons will be different than what I have experienced in my life.”
After its inception in 2013, The Orange Shirt Society (OSC) created the campaign to acknowledge the survivors of residential schools, their families, and to impart the message that ‘Every Child Matters’.
Along with the B.C. government and OSC, the Shuswap Band honoured the day by wearing Orange Shirts at their band office on Thursday, September 28th.
“Orange Shirt Day is to show awareness of First Nations history that has been Canada’s shameful secret. We learned about the holocaust in our social studies books as children and there was nothing about the First Nations People living in our communities,” said Shuswap Band Chief Barbara Cote. “The legacy the residential schools left behind still hurts, not only the survivors of that era, but still affects the young ones today. The orange shirt brings awareness that Canada still has work to do to help make a wrong right. We are survivors and we are slowly becoming proud again of our culture. I am happy that our province has begun to add it to the curriculum from Kindergarten to Grade 12 so they can finally understand the history which helps to alleviate the racism that still exists today.”
The residential school Ms. Webstad attended was part of the Secwepemc Nation. The Shuswap Band is one of 17 bands that makes up that nation. As such, the band celebrates Orange Shirt Day in the spirit of reconciliation and in honour of all of those affected by the Indian Residential School System.
“There’s quite a bit that’s gone on, it’s our scarred past and we’ve been living under the oppression of what the residential school system created,” said Shuswap Band and Council member Tim Eugene. “We’re still feeling the repercussions from it and it’s good that it’s being acknowledged but it’s still there and we’re still recovering from it. We’re a healing community and we have lots to deal with right now and we’re working to make things better.”
Orange Shirt Day is just the beginning of a movement to bring reconciliation to a people who had their identity and culture stolen from them. It was assumed the kids were ‘savages’ and they couldn’t learn. Everything was regimented to remove the ‘savage’ out of them, according to Shuwsap Band Social Development and Housing Manager, Doris Nicholas.
“The kids can relate to it. I have grandchildren and I said to them, ‘Would you like to go to school and have your shirt taken from you because it’s too Indian’? And, that’s something they can relate to,” she said.
Ms. Nicholas’ husband is among the survivors of the residential school system and he continues to struggle with the effects of the trauma he underwent as a child.
“He’s 65 years-old and he still deals with it everyday. You move on but it stays with you and it’s passed on to our children and our grandchildren and he’s healed, so we’re all healing, but it’s still very much a part of my life,” she said.
The official day fell on Saturday, September 30th, and members of the government and the OSC united at the steps of the B.C. Parliament Buildings on Friday, September 29th.
“Honouring Orange Shirt Day underscores the shift government needs to make in our relationship with B.C.’s Indigenous peoples as we strive to create better outcomes and brighter futures,” stated Katrine Convoy, minister of Children and Family Development in a press release.
The Canada-wide movement was conceived to bring awareness to the atrocities suffered by those who attended residential schools, and to educate today’s children on that particular period in history.
“Wearing an orange shirt doesn’t erase the trauma, but it can raise awareness of experiences that Indigenous children should never have endured and whose impact Indigenous families still live with today,” said Scott Fraser, minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation.