Clad in orange T-shirts, students across the country will spend their Mondays learning about the intergenerational harm done to children at Canada’s residential schools.
Sept. 30 marks the seventh annual Orange Shirt Day, started by Phyllis Webstad, a residential school survivor and Stswecem’c Xgat’tem from Williams Lake. The national day of remembrance refers to one of her first memories at St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School in B.C.’s central Interior in the 1970s, when staff took away her orange shirt, bought especially for school, when she was six years old.
“The colour orange has always reminded me of that [incident] and how my feelings didn’t matter, how no one cared and how I felt like I was worth nothing,” Webstad writes on the Orange Shirt Day website. “All of us little children were crying and no one cared.”
Her story has inspired many across the country and around the world to talk about the realities of residential schools and the wider historical marginalization of Indigenous peoples.
Thousands of First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were removed from their homes and forced to attend residential schools. The last one closed in 1996.
Webstad spends her time sharing her story and her beliefs about reconciliation with young people, including at an elementary school in B.C.’s Fraser Valley earlier this month.
“The elementary (schools) are the hardest,” she told the Agassiz-Harrison Observer. “I have to really watch what I say with the younger ones. With the older ones, I can tell them more, but with the younger ones, it’s really just surface stuff to introduce the topic.”
This year’s Orange Shirt Day will also celebrate Bill C-369, a federal bill awaiting a second vote in the Senate to make Sept. 30 the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. If passed, the last day of September will be a statutory holiday.
“It’s the truth of the history of Canada,” Webstad said of residential schools. “It’s not just First Nation history, this is Canadian history. And Canadians that live in this country need to be aware of this dark past.”
– with files from Grace Kennedy