orange shirt day canada

The history of Orange Shirt Day in Canada

This is the first year that Canada will recognize National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on September 30, a holiday intended for residents to take pause and reflect on the country's very troublesome treatment of Indigenous people in its history, as well as the tragic legacy of the residential school system.

It's absolutely no mistake that the new holiday also falls on Orange Shirt Day, another long-running, widely-recognized annual day to honour the nation's first people and also mark the atrocities committed against them by colonial settlers.

The origins of Orange Shirt Day in Canada

People began sporting orange shirts on Sept. 30 en masse in 2013, a move inspired by residential school survivor Phyllis Webstad of Stswecem’c Xgat’tem Dog Creek First Nation, who recalled wearing a bright orange shirt that her grandma had given her on her first day at the St. Joseph's Indian Residential School in B.C.

Webstad had her shirt taken from her on that day in 1973 — which was around this time of year — an act that served to represent the stripping of Indigenous identity and dignity that took place at such institutuons.

St. Joseph's in particular operated for nearly a century, from 1886 to 1981, and is one of many sites now being searched for remains after the bodies of thousands of children were uncovered at other former school sites earlier this year.

"I am the third generation that attended residential school — both my grandmother and mother attended [St. Joseph's] for ten years each," Webstad says in a 2016 video about Orange Shirt Day.

"Today is a day to honour and remember residential school survivors and their families... We must also remember those children that never made it and are no longer with us. Today is the day for survivors to tell their stories and for us to listen with open hearts."

Every Child Matters

The slogan "every child matters" has been adopted to commemorate the day, emblazoned onto orange t-shirts in remembrance of survivors and those lost who were forced into the system and taught to shed their culture and instead adopt Euro-centric, Christian values and ways of life.

The saying and shirts are also signifiers of the continuing journey towards reconciliation, for which there are a ton of helpful educational resources, ideas and tools on the Orange Shirt Day website and elsewhere.

"When I was in school, I didn't know my own history," Webstad continues in her video. "So I am overjoyed that you are taking part and learning the true history of Canada's first peoples."

Lead photo by

GoToVan via Wikimedia Commons

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