What is Orange Shirt Day?

Sask Bulletin
September 28, 2021
By Theresa Walter, First Nations Specialist at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum

Orange Shirt Day – Every Child Matters began in 2013 when Phyllis Webstad told her story at the residential school commemoration event in Williams Lake, B.C. She was six years old in 1973 when she arrived at St. Joseph Mission school for her first day. She told of how proud she was to wear her new orange shirt that her grandma had bought her for this special occasion. When she arrived at school, the shirt was taken away and replaced with a uniform, never to be worn again.

Webstad only attended this school for one year but remembered the feelings of worthlessness and insignificance experienced from her first day onwards.

Forty years later, she organized the commemoration event in 2013 to bring awareness to the harm and intergenerational trauma that the survivors of residential schools have endured.

September 30 was chosen as the date of remembrance as this was the time of year that students were taken from their homes and sent to the residential schools.

As our children return to school in September, this day represents an opportunity for children to take part in anti-bullying and anti-racism campaigns that teachers will deliver throughout the coming school year.

September 30 is now also a federally recognized day of remembrance and will be known as the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation commencing in September of 2021. A fundamental part of the reconciliation journey is the process of truth telling and listening to the voices of the survivors and their families. Once truth is accepted and past injustices recognized, then healing can begin.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and the 94 Calls to Action are helping to shed light on one dark chapter of our Canadian history. It is important to understand the history of colonization, residential schools and the impact the schools still have on Indigenous peoples today.

Canada’s residential schools operated between 1831 to 1996. Approximately 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children were forced to attend church-run facilities with the stated goal of “taking the Indian out of the child.” The students faced neglect and all manners of abuse in the schools and student testimonies were told at the Truth and Reconciliation hearings culminating in the final report released in 2015.

The Royal Saskatchewan Museum has orange shirts available for purchase in the RSM gift shop. All proceeds go directly to the Traditional Knowledge Keepers Program at the RSM and fund Orange Shirt Day events as well as our seasonal smudges, Indigenous Storytelling Month and other activities.

RSM Orange Shirt Day commemorative events for 2021 will include a public evening presentation of the film We Were Children on September 29, to feature the residential school attendee perspective. Food and time for reflection and conversation will be available. One special classroom will be invited for the school presentation on September 30 that will also be livestreamed to include more classroom participation. This classroom will be gifted with RSM orange shirts.

On September 30, we will remember the First Nations, Inuit and Métis children who never made it home and we will remember the survivors who live today to tell their stories, stressing the motto that Every Child Matters. We will support the bravery and resiliency of the survivors by listening with open ears, learning and supporting them as we move towards a path of reconciliation.

Visit the STF website for resources to help recognize and support Truth and Reconciliation.