It is unknown exactly how many children died as a result of Canada’s residential school system. According to Truth and Reconciliation chairman Justice Murray Sinclair, some schools had mortality rates of up to 60 per cent. With the slogan “Every Child Matters,” Orange Shirt Day sees Indigenous groups and students around Canada commemorating the legacy of the residential school system.
Originally the vision of Esk'etemc Chief Fred Robbins, Orange Shirt Day has been recognized every September 30 since 2013. Supporters are encouraged to wear orange shirts to spark conversation and educate the public in honour of the victims and survivors of Canada’s residential school system.
“We are looking for 100 per cent participation in Orange Shirt Day. It's vitally important,” said Amanda Myran, the Piluwitahasuwin (Assistant Vice President of Indigenous Engagement) at UNB. "It’s important we move beyond the symbolic act, and truth and reconciliation efforts aren't forgotten or lose momentum."
An effort of cultural genocide, the residential school system began before confederation but was propelled by efforts by Canada’s first Prime Minister, John A. MacDonald, who was inspired by similar programs in the United States.
MacDonald was quoted in 1879 as saying, "It has been strongly impressed upon myself, as head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.”
MacDonald’s words helped rip children from the arms of their parents, destroy communities, and wipe out the legacies of Indigenous cultures. Thus, we must recognize Orange Shirt Day as an important tool for education, especially for young people who think of the residential schools as an event far in the past. The day serves as a reminder to past supporters of the racist, genocidal regime that their crimes are not forgotten.
Residential schools were still operating as recently 1996 in Canada when the last one closed in Regina, Saskatchewan. Reports continue to emerge of the abuse and indoctrination suffered by Indigenous families at the hands of the residential schools, 60 per cent of which were run by the Catholic Church. This is a trauma that will ripple through communities, and this country, for generations.
Unfortunately, due to COVID-19 restrictions, Orange Shirt Day will look a little different in 2020.
“Sadly, we aren’t able to be in person to get together and honour the lost lives of those affected by residential schools, but the day shall keep the same meaning,” said Breana Andrews, UNB’s Indigenous Student Representative.
Orange Shirt Day organizers will be handing out Orange Shirts to Indigenous students as well as ally groups and are asking all participants to take photos with their shirts and email them to Breana Andrews. The photos will be collected and turned into a collage.
Additionally, there will be a community reading of the late Elder Isabelle Knockwood’s Out of the Depths. Knockwood, a survivor of the Shubenacadie residential school in Nova Scotia, wrote about the experiences of Mi’kmaw children forced into the residential schools. Each month, the group will read and discuss a couple of chapters from Knockwood’s book.
To commemorate the survivors and victims of the residential school system, start a conversation with your parents, educate your friends, and wear your orange shirt this Wednesday, September 30. Send your photos along to Breana Andrews (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you wish to be part of the collage.