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What Is Orange Shirt Day?

Content warning: This blog post discusses the impact of residential schools and the trauma that has followed. Click here if you need support, or you can call the First Nations and Inuit Hope for Wellness Help Line at 1‑855‑242-3310.

Orange Shirt Day is on Thursday, September 30th this year, and it's especially vital this time around to participate and learn more about it. For over 100 years, Indigenous children were taken from their homes and placed in residential schools where their culture was stripped away from them. Indigenous communities and survivors have struggled with the aftermath of this genocide, and Orange Shirt Day is one way to show support and acknowledge what happened.

Before we get started with this blog post, no matter where you're reading it from, we need to acknowledge the land that Concordia University stands on. Here's the land acknowledgment that you can find more info on from the Concordia website.

We would like to begin by acknowledging that Concordia University is located on unceded Indigenous lands. The Kanien’kehá:ka Nation is recognized as the custodians of the lands and waters on which we gather today. Tiohtià:ke/Montréal is historically known as a gathering place for many First Nations. Today, it is home to a diverse population of Indigenous and other peoples. We respect the continued connections with the past, present and future in our ongoing relationships with Indigenous and other peoples within the Montreal community.

No land acknowledgment is enough to repair or even truly recognize the depth of Canada's mistreatment of Indigenous peoples, both past and present. It fails to use the plain language that this land is stolen, and that our appropriation of it includes the violent silencing of Indigenous voices. Land acknowledgments like these are only a small step in the process of the recognition of what happened.

Orange Shirt Day is just one way that we can try to understand and reconcile these events. Let's get into what Orange Shirt Day actually is and how we can participate. This post is a heavy one, so buckle in. Although it's important to learn about these events, take care of yourself if you need to, and you can access one of the resources at the top of this post at any time.

What's the History of Orange Shirt Day?

Crowd at an Orange Shirt Day event
Orange Shirt Day honours those who lost their families, cultural ties, and lives in residential schools.

The first Orange Shirt Day actually took place less than 1o years ago in 2013. However, the history dates back to the 1860s, when residential schools were beginning to take shape in Canada. Orange Shirt Day is meant to honour survivors and bring awareness to the horrors that happened in residential schools. Acknowledging what happened is the first step towards healing.

Phyllis Webstad, a residential school survivor, inspired Orange Shirt Day when she first shared her story. As a child, once they learned she was going to school, her grandmother bought her a brand new orange shirt to wear. Without much money, this was a big deal for them. When Webstad got to school, they stole her shirt and the rest of her clothes.

Since then, the colour orange has become a symbol of the horrors that happened there, not only to her but to the rest of the community. Webstad was only six years old when that happened, and in the coming years she would continue to be affected before deciding to heal and reflect in her 20s. Phyllis Webstad is now the executive director of the Orange Shirt Society.

September 30th falls just around when school starts here in Canada, and in residential schools, this was no different. This date marks the time where First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children were torn from their homes. Orange Shirt Day began in Williams Lake, British Columbia, and has since spread to the rest of the country. This day is also known as the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

Residential Schools Are Over, So Why Do We Need Orange Shirt Day?

Orange t-shirt that reads "No More Canada Day on Our Home and Native Land"
Despite Canada's apologies, the oppression of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples continues.

Canada's government apologized for its role in residential schools in 2008, but that doesn't mean the impact has become less strong or apparent. An apology means nothing if the government doesn't use its time and resources to serve Indigenous communities. Orange Shirt Day is one way of bringing awareness to how Indigenous communities still live with the consequences of residential schooling. Here are just a few facts about the past and present of residential schools and their effects.

  • Over 150,000 children were sent to residential schools.

  • Between 90% and 100% of Indigenous children in residential schools suffered some kind of extreme abuse.

  • At one point in the 1930s, there were 80 residential schools in operation in Canada.

  • The last official residential school closed in 1996. For context, other things that happened in this year include the first animal cloning and the release of the Nintendo 64.

  • The mortality rate of children in residential schools was between 40% and 60%. This number is hard to pinpoint because of the lack of accountability and documentation.

  • Canada used Indigenous children for illegal medical testing. They tested experimental drugs, withheld dental care, and underfed them, which led to future health issues for those who survived.

  • Many children became sick with syphilis and other illnesses that can only be transmitted sexually.

  • In more recent times, unmarked graves are being unearthed at old residential school sites across Canada. Over 1,300 graves have been found so far, and there are still a few dozen sites that have yet to be searched.

  • According to the Native Women's Association of Canada, the current consequences of residential schooling include alcohol and drug abuse, mental health disorders like depression, dislike of formal learning, dysfunctional family structures, and ultimately a fear of healing.

How Can I Get Involved?

If it wasn't obvious already, the first thing you should do on September 30th is wear an Orange Shirt. If you don't already have one, there are a number of Indigenous-owned companies that you can purchase one from! Although it might be too late to order one this year, here's a list of places to buy orange shirts from Indigenous businesses for next time.

Besides showing your support and donating to relevant organizations to support reparations, the most important thing you can do on Orange Shirt Day is reflect and direct your attention to Indigenous voices. Practice your own moment of silence and encourage the people around you to do the same. Reflection will never be enough, and it's the least we can do.

If you have time on Thursday, you can also attend the Every Child Matters event organized by Native Women's Shelter of Montreal and the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador (AFNQL). It will take place at 1pm at Place du Canada, and the group will then march to Place des Arts.

What Else Can I Do?

Crowd in Ottawa on Orange Shirt Day
Everyone should get involved throughout the year, not just September 30th.

Just like every important issue of our time, we can't forget about everything once the clock strikes midnight. The only way that we can try to reconcile is by staying active throughout the year, learning as much as we can, uplifting Indigenous voices, and speaking up to policymakers when they don't do right by the community.

To learn more about both past and present Indigenous issues, try watching or reading about them from the list below (and conduct your own research too!). There are also many Instagram accounts that you can follow to keep up with current events throughout the year. You can also find and support Canadian Indigenous businesses on one of these resources. And lastly, donate to organizations that support residential school survivors and other Indigenous organizations if you can!

Books and Movies

We Were Children (docudrama)

Canada's Dark Secret (documentary)

Instagram Accounts

Places to Donate


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