Today on September 30th, we recognize National Orange Shirt Day. Today we recognize the harm caused by Canada’s legacy of residential schools, honour the survivors of residential schools, memorialize those who lost their lives, and we re-affirm our commitment to truth and reconciliation.
Beginning in 1883, the Government of Canada funded residential schools to be run by Christian churches, and empowered the RCMP to seize Indigenous children from reserves to be brought to these institutions. The objective of residential schools were to repress Indigenous cultures through separating these children from their families. Abuse was common in these schools, and mortality rates were high, in 1906 Canada’s chief medical officer wrote a report finding that frequently between 30% and 60% and sometimes as high as 69% of the children brought into residential schools lost their lives. The last residential school in Canada closed in 1996. The trauma of the residential school experience is widespread and continues to impact Indigenous communities to this day.
Orange Shirt Day is a legacy of the St. Joseph Mission (SJM) Residential School (1891-1981) Commemoration Project and Reunion events that took place in Williams Lake, BC, Canada, in May 2013. This project was the vision of Esketemc (Alkali Lake) Chief Fred Robbins, who is a former student himself. It brought together former students and their families from the Secwepemc, Tsilhqot’in, Southern Dakelh and St’at’imc Nations along with the Cariboo Regional District, the Mayors and municipalities, School Districts and civic organizations in the Cariboo Region.
The events were designed to commemorate the residential school experience, to witness and honour the healing journey of the survivors and their families, and to commit to the ongoing process of reconciliation. Chief Justice Murray Sinclair challenged all of the participants to keep the reconciliation process alive, as a result of the realization that every former student had similar stories.
Orange Shirt Day is a legacy of this project. As spokesperson for the Reunion group leading up to the events, former student Phyllis (Jack) Webstad told her story of her first day at residential school when her shiny new orange shirt, bought by her grandmother, was taken from her as a six-year old girl.
Join us today to re-affirm commitment to truth and reconciliation, to memorialize and honour those who have lost their lives, those who survived, and those whose lives continue to be impacted by this traumatic legacy.