By Sharon Lam Yiu, Law Clerk
Orange Shirt Day began when author, Phyllis Jack Webstad, a Northern Secwepemic from the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation, shared her experience as a survivor of the St. Joseph Mission Residential School, near Williams Lake, British Columbia.
Phyllis Jack Webstad recalled that on her first day of residential school at age 6, she was stripped of her clothes, which included a new orange shirt gifted to her by her grandmother. This shirt was never returned.
The orange shirt has become a symbol of the Indigenous identities that were, similar to the orange shirt, stripped away by the residential school system. Many Canadians now wear an orange shirt on September 30 as a way to support the survivors and victims of the residential schools.
September 30 was chosen as the date to honour the survivors and victims as this was historically the time of year when Indigenous children were taken from their homes and put into residential schools. Within the school system, the children suffered multiple forms of abuse, disease and harsh living conditions, with poor education, and high mortality rates. As a result, 70% of Canada’s Aboriginal languages are now endangered. 1
The last residential school closed in 1996. A class action was brought in response to the Residential Schools system. The Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement is the largest class action settlement in Canadian history.
As part of the settlement, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) was created to allow those that were affected by the Residential Schools system to voice their stories and experiences. The final report of the TRC was released in 2015 with ninety-four (94) Calls to Action. Among the 94 Calls to Action was to include a day of observance to educate the public of the Residential Schools system. 2 3
What began as a day of observance in 2013, became a federal statutory holiday in 2021. On May 28, 2021, the House of Commons unanimously voted to fast-track an order in creating the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. 4
This was especially poignant in light of the recent discovery of over 1,000 unmarked gravesites near former residential schools in Manitoba, British Columbia and Saskatchewan.
For more information, please go to https://www.orangeshirtday.org/
A video of Phyllis Jack Webstad’s experience can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E3vUqr01kAk