Activists, many wearing orange shirts, take to the streets of Toronto in June to mark the discovery of unmarked graves at residential schools. Photo by Michael Swan

Editorial: Colour us Orange

  • September 23, 2021

The first official National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is Sept. 30, “an opportunity for each public servant to recognize and commemorate the legacy of residential schools,” the government says.

It’s an appropriate, though long overdue, response to one of TRC’s Calls to Action in 2015, proclaimed only after the discovery of unmarked graves at a former residential school in Kamloops. More significantly perhaps, it lands on the same date as Orange Shirt Day, a reconciliation project which began in 2013 on a small scale and has blossomed into a national movement.

For many Canadians, whether or not they get a statutory day off from work or school, Sept. 30 will always be Orange Shirt Day, and that’s a good thing.

The story of Orange Shirt Day began in 1973, when six-year-old Phyllis Webstad, a member of the Northern Shuswap First Nations, was getting ready for her first day of residential school at the St. Joseph Mission in Williams Lake, B.C. She went with her grandmother to a department store to pick out new clothes for the occasion and chose a bright orange shirt.

“When I got to the Mission, they stripped me, and took away my clothes, including the orange shirt,” she later remembered. “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.”

Forty years later, she related the story during a meeting of former residential school students and families to plan ways to remember the legacy of the schools and continue on the road to reconciliation. Thus was born the notion of Orange Shirt Day and the slogan “Every Child Matters.”

Communities and school boards across the country have adopted the campaign, aimed at exploring the history of residential schools and promoting themes of inclusion, diversity and anti-racism. Every Sept. 30, orange is the colour of the day.

As for Webstad, the young girl grew up to earn several post-secondary degrees and is married with grandchildren. Williams Lake is still her home, but she continues to tell her story to groups across Canada in support of the Orange Shirt Society.

Of course, the trick to any one-day commemoration is to keep the flame that blazes  bright on that one date burning the other 364 days of the year. For a cause as important as reconciliation, there can be no let-up in that effort, no setting aside priority items for another day or for another tragic discovery to be made.

It is encouraging that many Catholic dioceses in Canada have grasped that notion and are working to instill an Indigenous consciousness into parish life. It must not waver.

Sept. 30 will come and go, but we mustn’t let it pass by without making our own effort to learn even a little more about the legacy of residential schools, about reconciliation — and maybe even start by wearing an orange shirt.

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