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The History of Orange Shirt Day

Woodland Cultural Centre

Orange Shirt Day happens every year on September 30th. It began as a way to honour all of the Indigenous children that attended residential schools in Canada. It has since become an opportunity to educate and remember the tragedy of residential schools and the cruel circumstances that Indigenous children experienced.

Approximately 150,000 Indigenous children from all across the country from 1828 – 1996 were taken away from their homes, stripped of their language, families, and culture by these church-run schools in Canada in a failed attempt to assimilate them.

Why is Orange Shirt Day in September? Orange Shirt Day falls on September 30th as this is the time of year children were taken away to residential schools. Some of them returned home for the summers, but some had no other option but to stay there year-round.

The colour Orange was chosen as a result of the experiences of residential school survivor, Phyllis Webstad. Phyllis was only six years old when she was sent to St Joseph’s Mission residential school in British Columbia from 1973-1974. Her grandmother had taken her to the store and bought her a brand new shiny orange shirt to wear to school. Phyllis was so excited to wear it to school. However, when Phyllis arrived, she was stripped of her clothing and never saw her orange shirt again. She was neglected, abused, and made to feel like she didn’t matter. She wasn’t allowed to go home for 300 sleeps. She recalls that every child there was crying to go home, but nobody at the school truly cared for them. They were made to feel alone, worthless, and like nobody would save them. Phyllis says that the colour Orange now reminds her of that time in her life where her feelings didn’t matter. Phyllis’ story is a difficult one to hear, and unfortunately it is like many others that attended residential schools.

Fortunately, Phyllis was able to return home to her grandmother after that year. As the Executive Director of the Orange Shirt Society, she now uses her story and platform to raise awareness about Orange Shirt Day, and turn the feeling of no one cares into healing and remembrance that every child matters.

The experiences at residential schools shaped the generations that have since come after them. While there is still a long way to go, Orange Shirt Day is a step towards recognition and healing for countless Indigenous people.

“What I want for the future generations, the seven generations coming up, is to get back their language, culture and ceremonies. Because that’s basically what the residential schools took away from all us kids that went there. We want them to be aware of these schools and what happened, they should always remember these residential schools and what happened so that none of these schools can ever come in existence again.” stated Geronimo Henry, Mohawk Institute Survivor.

Survivors and Intergenerational Survivors Services If you, or someone you know, is experiencing pain or distress as a result from their past experiences with residential schools, we urge you to please call the Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line (1-866-925-4419) provided by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and available 24 hours a day.

You can also call the Crisis Line to get information on other health supports provided by the Health Canada Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program.

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