Orange Shirt Day-Every Child Matters

By Chadd Cawson Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Imagine being a child, both excited and nervous to start a new school or maybe hating the idea of it. Despite all the mixed emotions,  you wore something on the first day that spoke to you, that represented you and where you come from. This was Phyllis Jack Webstad’s story of the Secwépemc (Shuswap) First Nation. In the documentary Returning Home that played at the 2022 Invermere Film Festival this past March, Jack Webstad talked about the trauma she endured, being placed in St. Joseph’s Mission residential school at the delicate age of six. She showed up the first day wearing a dazzling sparkly bright orange shirt her grandmother gave to her. She loved it – it spoke to her. But it was stripped away. Imagine if that was your child, or one close to you. 

What makes this story even sadder is it is not just Jack Webstad’s story but that of all Indigenous children who were removed from their families and forced to attend residential schools. It was not just clothing that was stripped from these young innocent children, but their culture, their language, their identity. 

Jack Webstad is the founder of the Orange Shirt Society and the Orange Shirt Day Movement. The Orange Shirt Society operates out of Williams Lake, a nine-hour car drive from the Shuswap Band office in Invermere. Jack Webstad brought the Orange Shirt Movement tour to provinces across Canada. She spoke about her experiences while attending St. Joseph’s Mission to students in both an elementary, and a high school setting. St. Joseph’s remained open until 1981.

Jack Webstad started Orange Shirt Day to raise awareness and educate the masses about the horrors of what went on inside the walls of residential schools. It has been recognized every Sept. 30 since its inception in 2013. This date was chosen because  it represents historically, the time of the year that Indigenous children were removed from their homes and taken to residential schools across the nation. The trauma and impact left from the residential school system is finally being recognized as nothing short of a cultural genocide. It took the heart wrenching findings of the 215 unmarked graves at the Kamloops Indian Residential School for non-Indigenous people to finally open their eyes and listen. The uncovering of these graves impacted many across the nation. 

“It had a huge impact personally on me as my mom was a survivor of residential schools and the horrors that she endured from the residential school changed her life as a child,  into a life without parents, and the only role model she had were the nuns who did not show any love,” said Chief Barbara Cote of the Shuswap Band. “It was also very hard on my community as it brought all the pain back as if it happened yesterday. I was very moved that so many people came and showed support when we had a ceremony, even though we were trying to keep it small due to COVID. I really believe Canadians were shocked when the 215 children were found and that the atrocities that happened to not one generation, but three generations, were kept hidden for so long.”

Unfortunately, it took this shocking tragedy for the Canadian government to recognize Orange Shirt Day as a national holiday, officially naming it Truth and Reconciliation Day on Sept. 30, 2021.

“I feel Indigenous people have woken up too, and we need to get out from under that thumb. We need to get back in touch with our culture and our ways of life and stop sweeping them under the bed because we are told that’s not your way or maybe that’s long gone,” shares Secwépemc (Shuswap) Elder, Laverna Stevens. “It’s not long gone, that’s the way we survived, and that’s the way we are going to survive today. Once we find ourselves again and heal within ourselves, we reach out and we help the ones who are having trouble instead of just pushing them to the side. Then we can all go forward together again, the way we used to in bands, whereas now I think we are all pulled apart.”

Many Indigenous people and their families through Intergenerational trauma have been pulled apart through the impacts left by the residential school system.

From the documentary Returning Home a survivor of St. Josephs Mission residential school stands on the grounds, reflecting on the abuse she and her friends endured there. Submitted Photo

“My mother didn’t talk about her time at the school, and I didn’t learn about the residential school horrors until I went to university and took a year of First Nation studies,” shared Chief Cote. “Later I got to sit with my mom when the government had her testify on the abuse she endured. There was a common experience payment that every student got, but there were also payments based on the abuse you faced. They would give you a little more, but you had to show the scars. When I think of the children who didn’t make it out, it’s hard to think of financial compensation as enough. The traumas are intergenerational and the generations following this century of abuses are still trying to heal.”

Orange is a powerful colour for many First Nations and represents sunshine, health, regeneration, health, truth telling, and power. The orange shirt is a powerful clothing item, worn to represent how the students at residential schools were stripped of their rich Indigenous identities. Truth and Reconciliation needs to start with non-Indigenous people first, facing uncomfortable truths and finding ways to reconcile not just one day a year but all 365 of them. 

“When you try to start in that world the first reaction is always; it doesn’t pertain to us,” said Laverna Stevens. “Sure it does, because it was the ancestors of many non-Indigenous people that did that to us, so they could live here on our land, and could pay rent, eat, and do whatever. I think more people need to read the books and educate themselves on truth and reconciliation and start seeing us as people, that’s what I think.”

Stevens, an Elder and residential school survivor, shared she would like to see more people read the Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action and become more educated. Chief Cote echoes that more people need to be open and learn the facts, and with that, comes with a responsibility to supporting First Nations and demanding that Canada rights the wrongs of these injustices. There have been many injustices over the years, not only from within the residential schools, but also regarding the rights Indigenous people have with their lands and resources.  There continues to be injustice in both the child welfare and prison systems. Chief Cote feels while there are some changes with legislation under UNDRIP and DRIPA, for the average Canadian, a lot more needs to be done to make things right.

Debra Fisher, Regional Director for Métis Nation British Columbia echoes these same feelings and as we approach the second Truth and Reconciliation Day, she too feels more can be done.

“I think there’s a lot of talk, but I haven’t seen a whole lot of action from the government’s standpoint particularly for Métis people,” said Fisher. “I would like the provincial and federal government to uphold their UNDRIP, DRIPA, and Truth and Reconciliation obligations, and the rights of Indigenous people. Those need to be actively fulfilled.”

No one knows that more than those that attended residential schools like Basil and Laverna Stevens. 

“We need to start working on the things inside the Truth and Reconciliation book,” said Stevens.  “Are people going to forget about it ten years from now, if it’s not worked on at it at a level that it needs to be at to grow? As each Truth and Reconciliation Day comes, how far will it be? Will we all be working together, and finally looked at as equal to non-indigenous? I do we feel like we are more recognized now, but it is up to Indigenous people as to how we are going to deal with it now. We’ve got to move on, all of us together.”

While the words ‘Every Child Matters’ will be displayed by all cultures on flags and t-shirts on this day across the country we must remember, while it is a start, it is not enough. We must think of all the children who felt like they never mattered during their time in residential schools, and all the injustices done to all Indigenous people inside and outside the walls of residential schools. The truth can no longer be hidden. It is finally out there, but the reconciliation has only barely just begun.

“Although there are some who are very compassionate and are showing support, there are still many who are just as ignorant as they were before. I can tell by the way they treat us that our history just doesn’t matter to them. There are still people who try to deny what happened to my mom and all those kids. I do think that more people are trying to learn, but we still have a long way to go,” said Chief Cote. “I hope people will think about and learn the truth and be open to what Reconciliation really means to us. It’s about changing the education system to teach not only children, but teachers, on what the Indigenous history really was. We need to start learning about the rich history in our back yards on how we were survivors. We had our own working governments and each person in the community had an important role, whether it was hunting, food gathering, health, childcare, teaching, or spirituality. We don’t want to be known as useless Indians anymore. We were forced to be this way for a long time and now times are so different, where our youth can grow up proud to be Indigenous.”

A little girl proudly shows off her Indigenous culture and bright orange regalia at the Salmon Festival earlier this month. Photo By Chadd Cawson