Orange Shirt Day was established in 2013 and is celebrated each year on September 30th. The holiday seeks to recognize and honor those who survived Indian residential schools and to demonstrate a commitment to ensuring that, today, every child matters. In the spirit of recognition and healing, Orange Shirt Day asks that all Canadians wear an orange shirt as a symbolic and collective commitment to reconciliation.
Orange Shirt Day really began in 1973, when a six year old girl named Phyllis Webstad went to school at the St. Joseph Mission Residential School outside Williams Lake, BC. She was proudly wearing a brand new orange shirt, which was a rare opportunity for a young First Nations girl. The shirt was quickly stripped from her by the Mission Oblates and, with it, her sense of self-worth, pride, and dignity in a way that would shape her forever.
In Canada, the Indian residential school system was a network of boarding schools for Indigenous peoples funded entirely by the Canadian government’s Department of Indian Affairs and administered by Christian churches. These schools sought to remove Indigenous children from their homes and, by doing so, strip them of their Native culture and assimilate them into Canadian culture. The earliest recognized residential school was the Mohawk Institute in Brantford, Ontario in 1831, while the last federally run residential school closed in 1996.
Approximately 150,000 children attended these schools and over 6,000 died while in attendance. Today, approximately 80,000 of those who suffered through this system survive and we have only just begun to recognize their resilience and bravery.
Today, the world remembers Phyllis Webstad’s experience and what must have been the experience of countless children like her who had their freedom, individuality, and spirit robbed from them. September 30th not only marks the time of year in which children were taken from their homes to residential schools, but seeks to set the stage for anti-racism and anti-bullying policies for the present school year.
Each year, First Nations, local governments, schools, and communities come together in the spirit of reconciliation and hope for generations of children to come. Survivors now turn to their cultural roots, revive traditions and languages, and find strength among family and community to heal and continue their long tradition of resilience. Orange Shirt Day strives to bring awareness to their long journey and continue to pave the path toward a better future for all.
To learn more about Orange Shirt Day and how you can participate, visit www.orangeshirtday.org