Orange Shirt Day is a regional grass roots indigenous-led initiative that became a national campaign by providing a space and support for recognition, remembrance, recovering, and conversations about Residential Schools, survivors and their legacy in Canada.
Problems and Purpose
Over 150,000 indigenous children were coerced or forced to attend Canadian Residential Schools that operated between 1831 and 1996. The Residential Schools were part of a wider system of settler colonialism. They are described by the National Truth and Reconciliation Report as “cultural genocide”, the targeted attempt to violently suppress, de-legitimize, and assimilate indigenous cultural practices into European cultural practices. The Residential Schools were also sites of physical, sexual, and physiological abuse and death. The impacts of Residential Schools are multi-layered, experienced not only by the approximately 80,000 survivors and their communities, but the trans-generational transmission of trauma and disconnection with identity, culture, family, and community which has lasting material, physiological, psychological, economic and social effects. Despite this genocidal violence against indigenous peoples, survivors have reclaimed their cultural roots, traditions, languages, and finding strength in community to heal.
Therefore there is a need for indigenous-led processes of remembrance and discussion in which survivors can share experiences and non-indigenous can listen under mutual recognition of the reality of the Residential School System in Canada and in support of indigenous peoples. Orange Shirt Day and the act of wearing an orange shirt, creates a space where all those who experienced Residential Schools are reaffirmed that they matter (#Every Child Matters). As Phyllis Webstad of Canoe Creek/Dog Creek First Nations summarizes: “When you wear an orange shirt, it’s like a little bit of justice for our survivors in our lifetime and recognition of a system we can never allow again”.
Background History and Context
Before Orange Shirt Day was a campaign, it was a story that was told as part of the St. Joseph Mission Residential School (1891-1981) Commemoration Project and Reunion events that took place in Williams Lake, BC, Canada, in May 2013. These projects were first conceptualized in a vision by Esketemc (Alkali Lake) Chief Fred Robbins and it brought together former students and their families from the Secwepemc, Tsilhqot’in, Southern Dakelh and St’at’imc Nations along with the Cariboo Regional District, the Mayors and municipalities, School Districts and civic organizations in the Cariboo Region. It was indigenous led but brought together non-indigenous Canadians to witness, learn and create connections.
The events were designed to "commemorate the residential school experience, to witness and honor the healing journey of the survivors and their families, and to commit to the ongoing process of reconciliation."
Orange Shirt Day is an extension of this project. As spokesperson for the Reunion events former St. Joseph Mission Residential School student Phyllis Webstad told her story of her first day at residential school when her new orange shirt, bought by her grandmother, was taken from her as a six-year old girl, and how the orange shirt became a symbol of loss and then reclaimed as an affirmation that every child matters. Here is Phyllis Webstad in her own words:
"I went to the Mission for one school year in 1973/1974. I had just turned 6 years old. I lived with my grandmother on the Dog Creek reserve. We never had very much money, but somehow my granny managed to buy me a new outfit to go to the Mission school. I remember going to Robinson’s store and picking out a shiny orange shirt. It had string laced up in front, and was so bright and exciting – just like I felt to be going to school! When I got to the Mission, 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… I went to a treatment centre for healing when I was 27 and have been on this healing journey since then. 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 from the truth, I still sometimes feel that I don’t matter. Even with all the work I’ve done! I am honoured to be able to tell my story so that others may benefit and understand, and maybe other Survivors will feel comfortable enough to share their stories.”
[Phyllis Webstad, https://www.orangeshirtday.org/phyllis-story.html]
Many former Residential School students had similar experiences. The story of Phyllis and her orange shirt became the inspiration for a day to honor Residential School Survivors and acknowledge there legacy. Observed on the last day of September – the time of year when Indigenous children were taken from their families – Orange Shirt Day provides an opportunity for meaningful discussion about the impact of Residential Schools.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
Here is a list of corporate donors and partners supporting the work of Orange Shirt Day: https://www.orangeshirtday.org/corporate-donors.html
Orange Shirt Day also relies on small contributions and support by individual donors, the extensive list of 2021 individual donors can be found here: https://www.orangeshirtday.org/2021-individual-donors8203.html
Participant Recruitment and Selection
The events were first designed to commemorate the residential school experience, to witness and honour the healing journey of the survivors and their families, and to commit to the ongoing process of reconciliation. This project was the vision of Esketemc (Alkali Lake) Chief Fred Robbins, who brought together former students and families from the Secwepemc, Tsilhqot’in, Southern Dakelh and St’at’imc Nations, the Cariboo Regional District, the Mayors and municipalities, School Districts and civic organizations in the Cariboo Region.
While this movement started regionally, indigenous and non-indigenous communities and schools throughout Canada have used the resources to provide educational and reflection opportunities on Orange Shirt Day. Everyone who wears a shirt and contributes on September 30 to addressing and commemorating the experiences of residential school survivors and horrors of settler-colonialism, is a participant in Orange Shirt Day. According to Phyllis Webstad, “When you wear an orange shirt, it’s like a little bit of justice for our survivors in our lifetime and recognition of a system we can never allow again”.
Methods and Tools Used
Orange Shirt Day addressed a systemic injustice in Canadian society that drew in participants who wanted to learn more about Residential Schools and there impacts and/or express solidarity with indigenous communities and survivors. Crowd sourcing and social media outreach enabled the story and message of Orange Shirt Day to spread via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, tiktok, and other social media and traditional media outlets. This enabled coalition building around the Orange Shirt Day message. The Orange Shirt Day slogan, “every child matters” became popularized and enshrined in popular culture; signs on lawns, t-shirts, murals, and in official government speeches with schools and communities rallying around the slogan to keep the conversation going. This created a space where people could remember, commemorate and learn about the history of residential schools and settler-colonialism in Canada.
In addition to coalition building and using social media to create inclusive public spaces for discussion, the Orange Shirt Day provides support for communities through sharing organizing indigenous event and teaching resources to help educate and spread awareness about the histories of indigenous peoples and settler colonialism in Canada.
Currently the Orange Shirt Day has compiled the following list of teaching resources:
- Orange Shirt Day K-Gr 6 Curriculum by Robin Drinkwater
- Building Bridges Level 1 (Grade 5 and up)
- Building Bridges Level 2 (Grade 8 and up)
- Building Bridges Level 1 (Grade 5 and up) FRENCH
- Building Bridges Level 2 (Grade 8 and up) FRENCH
- Teacher Resource Guide - Grade 5
- Teacher Resource Guide - Grade 10
- Teacher Resource Guide - Grade11/12
- Teacher Resource Printable Sticker Sheet
- Teacher Resource Printable Sticker Sheet French
- Orange Shirt Day Activities by J., Whiffin, P., Hagen and T., Galligos
- Assembly of First Nations Tool Kit
The Orange Shirt Day has also compiled guidelines for how to plan a school and community event:
“Plan a school event:
It is suggested that a planning committee be established, as early as possible in the year, and that local First Nations be included on the committee.
Ideas for school activities:
- Watch the Shaw video of Phyllis’s story. Discussion around “Every Child Matters.”
- Simple activities, e.g. Children trace their hand, then write in the hand something they can do to help others feel like they matter.”
“Plan a community event:
Sample agenda for community ceremony (Include local First Nations protocol)
- Welcome to traditional territory by Chief
- Opening prayer and drumming
- Greetings from federal and/or provincial government officials
- Welcome by Mayor and/or other local government representative, School Board
- Residential school survivor or family member speaking about residential school
- Entertainment and/or children’s activity.”
In addition to offering educational and organizing support, Orange Shirt Day uses its website to collate grass roots cultural and educational materials that people create to spread awareness, learn/unlearn, and build solidarity with indigenous peoples and survivors at the forefront.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
The annual Orange Shirt Day on September 30th is an opportunity to create meaningful discussion about the effects of Residential Schools and there continued legacy.
The date was chosen because it is the time of year in which children were taken from their homes to residential schools, and because it is an opportunity to set the stage for anti-racism and anti-bullying policies for the coming school year. It is an opportunity for First Nations, local governments, schools and communities to come together in the spirit of reconciliation and hope for generations of children to come.
It all started right here in the Cariboo, and as a result, School District No. 27 was chosen by the First Nations Education Steering Committee (FNESC) to pilot curriculum changes for all Grade 5 and Grade 10 students reflecting the residential school experience, which have now been implemented province-wide. “On this day of September 30th, we call upon humanity to listen with open ears to the stories of survivors and their families, and to remember those that didn’t make it.”
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
Resolutions have been passed in support of Orange Shirt Day by local governments, school districts, and First Nations in the Cariboo region and throughout Canada. This has had an impact providing momentum to ongoing initiatives already underway to re-write and integrate First Nation’s knowledges and histories within school curriculum and Canadian society more generally. It also provides support to the hard work of reconciliation and provides the education and coalition building ground work to connect, organize and educate people about Residential Schools and the resilience of survivors.
The Assembly of First Nations Chiefs-in-Council passed a resolution declaring Orange Shirt Day “a first step in reconciliation”, and pledged to bring the message home as well as to the government of Canada and the churches responsible. The government passed legislation to make September 30th a federal statutory holiday called the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation but Alberta, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario do not recognize the statutory holiday.
In 2021, Orange Shirt Day supported events in every province: https://www.orangeshirtday.org/2021-events.html
Analysis and Lessons Learned
Orange Shirt Day is a nationally celebrated movement that is indigenous led. Orange Shirt Day functions productively to educate peoples about the Residential School System however there are some criticisms.
Andrea Landry an Anishinaabe living in Treaty 6 lands of Poundmaker Cree Nation, in Saskatchewan remarks on the popularizaiton of Orange Shirt Day and asks a critical question: “Never before have so many non-Indigenous people paid attention to the reality of residential schools… Can wearing an orange T-shirt, and incorporating some Indigenous history into the lesson plan for a single day in September, really create the kind of change we truly need?” In other words, how can Orange Shirt Day carry on the conversation and hard work of learning (and unlearning)?
Whose Land is it Anyway?
Orange Shirt Day Website:
Orange Shirt Day YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCNmfjRvjjB9gP3OEtXcHpkw
Orange Shirt Day Facebook Page:
Andrea Landry, “Wearing orange shirts on September 30 is a great start—but you can do more”