On September 30 2013, Canada first recognized Orange Shirt Day as part of an effort to educate Canadians about the atrocities committed against Indigenous children at residential schools.
A decade later, Orange Shirt Day continues to be an annual day of remembrance, teaching and healing from the suffering caused by residential schools in Canada from the 1830s to the late 1990s.
Why Do You Wear Orange?
Author and residential school survivor Phyllis Webstad became the original inspiration behind Orange Shirt Day after she shared her heartbreaking story at a St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School Commemoration Project and Reunion event in the spring of 2013.
While living in Dog Creek Reserve in British Columbia in 1973, 6-year-old Webstad was gifted an orange shirt by her grandmother to wear for the first day of school. Sadly, when she arrived at St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School, her clothes were taken from her and she never saw that orange shirt again.
“The colour orange has always reminded me of that and how my feelings didn’t matter, how no one cared and how I felt like I was worth nothing,” Webstad shared. “All of us little children were crying, and no one cared.”
For her, that orange shirt represented a piece of home, and a reminder of the traumas and experiences that came after. The shirt also served a symbol of the culture, freedom and self-esteem that was stripped away from Indigenous children for generations at the hands of residential schools.
Every Child Matters
Chief Fred Robbins, another former St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School student, started Orange Shirt Day in 2013 to ensure that residential school survivors are not forgotten. He brought together members of local government, various community officials and leaders, Tribal Council, school districts and former students to remember and reconcile the realities of Canada’s past.
Over 150,000 Indigenous children attended residential schools during their operation and it is estimated that anywhere from 4,100 to 6,000 of those children died. The last residential school closed in 1996.
In June 2021, the Canadian government passed the bill to make September 30 the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation, coinciding with Orange Shirt Day.