Every year on September 30th, Canada turns orange. Not only do people all over the country wear orange clothing, but buildings across Canada are also illuminated in this distinctive colour.
These acts are part of an annual observance called “Orange Shirt Day.” Its purpose is to raise awareness about the unthinkable trauma caused by the Canadian residential school system to Indigenous communities. With the slogan of “Every Child Matters,” Orange Shirt Day honours survivors, their families, and communities, who continue to be impacted by the atrocities committed by the residential school system.
Here’s a closer look at what Every Child Matters means and what Orange Shirt Day represents, along with why the newly established National Day for Truth and Reconciliation matters to all Canadians.
Imagine being taken from your family and community and forced to attend a distant boarding school. You cannot visit your family, you are punished for speaking the language you grew up speaking, and most clothing and belongings that remind you of your family or culture are taken from you. Many of these schools provided no academic education, only offered part-time classes, and forced students to work for the school; housekeeping or working in the kitchen if you’re a girl, or maintenance or agricultural work if you’re a boy. Now imagine this happening under conditions of rampant sexual and physical abuse where you went hungry and denied medical. Your friends were also dying of sickness around you. This is exactly what happened in Canada to more than 150,000 Indigenous children between 1831 and 1996.
Thousands of Indigenous children died during this time period. While countless others still bear the physical and emotional scars of their time spent in more than 130 state-funded Christian boarding schools, where they were indoctrinated into Canadian society and beaten for speaking their native languages.
The slogan and message of Orange Shirt Day, “Every Child Matters,” recognizes the atrocities committed at Canada’s residential boarding schools. It is an expression of the belief that all children are important, including the ones left behind at residential schools and adults who are still healing from the trauma they endured there.
Chief Jason Louie of Canadian Indigenous group the Lower Kootenay Band says of this dark period in Canadian history, “Let’s call this for what it is. It’s a mass murder of Indigenous people.”
Despite the profound and detrimental impacts of residential schools, this dark period in Canadian history was seldom acknowledged or discussed by non-Indigenous Peoples before the creation of Orange Shirt Day and National Day of Truth and Reconciliation. Orange Shirt Day was created to acknowledge the damage that was done in residential schools, and to give a platform for survivors to share their stories.
Chief Fred Robbins was instrumental in developing Orange Shirt Day. A former student of Williams Lake, BC’s St. Joseph Mission Residential School, Chief Robbins spearheaded the St Josephs Mission Residential School Commemorative Project, which offered Indigenous and non-Indigenous Peoples a space to remember, recover, and reconcile. During one of its events in May 2013, former residential student Phyllis (Jack) Webstad, shared her story. She explains that her brand-new orange shirt—given to her by her grandmother—was taken from her when she was just six-year-old on her first day at residential school.
“When I got to the Mission (school), they stripped me, and took away my clothes, including the orange shirt! I never wore it again. I didn’t understand why they wouldn’t give it back to me, it was mine! 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. All of us little children were crying and no one cared,” she says.
While Webstad survived and got professional support when she was 27, these feelings would stay with her throughout her life.
She reflects, “I finally get 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. Even now, when I know nothing could be further than the truth, I still sometimes feel that I don’t matter. Even with all the work I’ve done!”
In July 2014, the Assembly of First Nations Chiefs-in-Assembly passed an official resolution declaring September 30th as Orange Shirt Day. Orange Shirt Day is observed on this day because it was the day when Indigenous children like Phyllis were removed from their homes.
On September 30th, thousands of Canadians wear orange to acknowledge what Phyllis and so many others went through, and to reaffirm that Every Child Matters.
In an effort to heal and support the reconciliation process, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Calls to Action address the ongoing impact of residential schools on Indigenous communities, families, and cultures across aspects including child welfare, education, language and culture, health, and justice.
The impacts of the residential schools were far-reaching, and fully addressing them calls for initiatives in a comprehensive range of areas, including church apologies, education, youth programs, museums and archives, missing children and burial information, commemoration, media, sports, business, and more. Furthermore, Call to Action #80 specifically calls for the declaration of a statutory holiday to publicly commemorate the dark history and tragic legacy of residential schools, and to honor the survivors, families, and communities, as a necessary part of reconciliation. This led to first-ever National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on September 30, 2021.
Events commemorating the first-ever National Day for Truth and Reconciliation included:
• The illumination of the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill and other federal buildings across Canada.
• Truth and Reconciliation Week, five days of bilingual educational programming for students in grades 5 through 12 featuring pre-recorded and webcasted programming supporting the involvement of Indigenous and non-Indigenous students all over the country.
• The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation Broadcast, an hour-long bilingual primetime show.
• The Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) Sunrise Ceremony.
• Various local Orange Shirt Day events across Canada.
Acknowledging the painful legacy of residential schools in Canada is our collective responsibility. We all have a role to play in listening to the stories of how Indigenous communities were deeply scarred. While these stories are painful, they’re of vital importance if we’re to move forward in truth and toward reconciliation.
Orange Shirt Day: Every Child Matters, and the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation support the following outcomes:
Canadians are becoming more aware of the atrocities committed against Indigenous Peoples, and the ongoing trauma caused by residential schools.
This increased awareness about Canada’s treatment of Indigenous Peoples creates a positive cycle which has prompted more Canadians to stand in solidarity with them.
With more education and awareness, the government and many Canadians are increasingly committed to Truth and Reconciliation. They are working collectively with Indigenous communities to remedy past wrongs and create a positive future in which the country takes responsibility for its egregious wrongdoings, and survivors prevail in their quest for recognition, healing, and justice.
While residential schools may be in the past, they created profound generational trauma in Indigenous communities. As such, their legacy is very much part of Canada’s present and future. Thousands of children were killed in residential schools, while countless others suffered unthinkable physical and sexual abuse. Still others went missing, and their bodies were never found. Their families still don’t have closure regarding their fates.
Orange Shirt Day ensures that none of these stories are lost. It pays homage to children who did not make it back to their families, while also prioritizing healing for survivors.
While there’ve been many positive outcomes resulting from increased awareness about Canada’s residential schools and the need for reconciliation, we’ve still got a long way to go. The best way to get there? Together. The most meaningful progress will be made only with the continued support and collective action of all Canadians.
There are many ways you can do your part to stand in solidarity with Indigenous Peoples — not just on Orange Shirt Day, but every day. Here are some places to start:
Help break the cycle by educating yourself about residential schools and the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
This simple act makes a huge difference. In addition to honouring Phyllis (Jack) Webstad’s story, the colour is also uniquely symbolic due to the Indigenous Peoples’ connection to fire.
Mohawk faithkeeper (Roterihonton) Kevin Deer told the Toronto Star, “We can turn the colour into goodness if we see orange in a different way. Orange is the colour of fire…in its flames are the stories of our ancestors who gathered around fire not only for warmth but to socialize, to remember, to dance and sing.”
Find a National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation event or activity in your community on Orange Shirt Day or throughout the year.
Unite for Change stands in solidarity with Indigenous communities. You can, too, by making a donation to the Indigenous Peoples Solidarity Fund.
In addition to residential schools, Canada’s Indigenous Peoples have faced systemic discrimination, and harmful government policies. Racism has also created historic and modern injustices and inequalities, including long-term drinking water advisories, unequal access to healthcare and education, mental health crises for young people, and economic inequality.
Your gift will help support truth and reconciliation while also helping to fund Indigenous ingenuity and brilliance within Indigenous-led organizations. These organizations are essential in rebuilding traditional culture and language that was passed from generation-to-generation but lost or damaged from government-led assimilation practices. They also offer services and support founded in Indigenous knowledge, which uplifts an emerging generation of leaders.
We can all play a role in redressing past harm, supporting survivors, and laying the groundwork for reconciliation. Orange Shirt Day is just onestep on the path to healing. But we have to start somewhere.