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

Orange Shirt Day a bridge to reconciliation

By 
  • September 24, 2021

OTTAWA -- A day set aside to remember how Canada’s Indigenous communities suffered under this country’s residential school system will take on added meaning this year when the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation Sept. 30 becomes a federal statutory holiday for the first time.

Many Catholic organizations and school boards across the country have been marking the day — also known as “Orange Shirt Day” — as an act of atonement and reconciliation for the Catholic Church’s role in the residential school system since Sept. 30 was first observed as a day of remembrance in 2013. This year is the first time it is an officially recognized federal holiday.

Orange Shirt Day evolved out of a project in B.C. to commemorate the residential school experience and honour survivors while committing to reconciliation.

The significance of the orange shirt is told in the story of former B.C. residential school student Phyllis Webstad. She related how on her first day at residential school a new orange shirt bought by her grandmother was taken from her when she was six years old.

“It is an opportunity to create meaningful discussion about the effects of residential schools and the legacy they have left behind,” a statement on the orangeshirtday.org website said, adding that it is hoped this is “a discussion all Canadians can tune into and create bridges with each other for reconciliation.”

Heritage Minister Stephen Guilbeault, upon announcing Sept. 30 would be a federal holiday this past June, said it is meant to educate Canadians about the impact residential schools have had on Indigenous Canadians and their culture.

“Setting aside a special day each year to take the time to acknowledge this painful history will help everyone learn and understand more about the realities of the residential school era. This is a positive step on our path toward reconciliation. This type of commemoration is a collective, public act of recognition,” Guilbeault said soon after the discovery of unmarked graves at a Catholic Church-operated residential school in Kamloops, B.C., this past spring.

“This will also be a day of listening and healing for the entire country.”

Pat Daly, director of education for the Halton Catholic District School Board (HCDSB) west of Toronto, said observing Sept. 30 is an important step towards reconciliation.

“We are committed to the work of truth and reconciliation in our HCDSB schools,” Daly said. “We do this by prioritizing engagement with Indigenous parents and community partners while supporting the delivery of Indigenous education in an inclusive and equitable manner.

“It is crucial that First Nation, Métis and Inuit histories and perspectives continue to be taught in our Catholic schools so that we can rebuild and reconcile the relationship with Indigenous communities.”

In Ottawa Catholic schools, its website says “wearing an orange shirt (or anything orange, even a ribbon) on Sept. 30 shows that you recognize the impact that residential schools have had on multiple generations of Indigenous families. It shows that you understand the need for reconciliation and that you are open to being part of the discussion about the effects of residential schools and the legacy they have left behind. It shows that you believe that every child matters.”

Joe Gunn, the executive director of the Ottawa-based Centre Oblat: A Voice for Justice, said it is important Catholic organizations and orders, such as the Oblates who operated numerous residential schools on behalf of the federal government, take responsibility and acknowledge past wrongs.

“Reconciliation can only happen if we face up to the truth of what happened,” he said.

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