CONTENT WARNING: Residential School and Related Traumas
JFK Law offices will be closed Thursday, September 30, to recognize Orange Shirt Day and the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. We close our offices to acknowledge the legacy of the residential school system and honour Survivors, and so that our team can reflect on how we can advance Indigenous rights and contribute, personally and professionally, to efforts to remedy ongoing harms to Indigenous peoples.
Orange Shirt Day is a day to recognize the harms that the residential school system inflicted on Indigenous children and to raise awareness about the residential school system and the ongoing harm that school system continues to create. The day is named for the story of Phyllis Webstad, who is Northern Secwpemc from the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation. Phyllis’ grandmother bought her a new outfit to attend the St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School in Williams Lake, BC. Phyllis said that she picked out a shiny orange shirt that was “so bright and exciting – just like I felt to be going to school!”
In 1973, on her first day at the Mission School, school staff stripped Phyllis and took away her clothes, including her new orange shirt, never to be seen again. Phyllis says that “the color 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. All of us little children were crying and no one cared.”
The federal government and religious orders operated 139 residential schools across Canada from 1831 to 1996. These institutions existed in every province and territory. For more than 100 years, Indigenous children as young as 4 years old were forcibly removed from their families and communities, prohibited from speaking their own language and practicing their culture, and sexually, physically, and emotionally abused. In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) identified 3200 student deaths at residential schools, but also heard from Survivors that many more children went to school and never returned, meaning that number could be much higher. This year, mass numbers of unmarked graves at former residential school sites have been uncovered across the country – and the numbers are expected to grow.
Orange Shirt Day is now recognized as a statutory holiday by the federal government and the BC government. This is a response to TRC Call to Action 80, which states that the federal government will work with Indigenous people to establish a statutory holiday to “honour Survivors, their families, and communities, and ensure that public commemoration of the history and legacy of residential schools remains a vital component of the reconciliation process”.
It important to acknowledge not only Canada’s history towards Indigenous peoples but also the many ways that injustices towards present and future generations of Indigenous peoples continue to be perpetuated in Canada. We strongly encourage everyone to read, support and, critically, find ways to act on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action, the MMIWG Inquiry’s Calls for Justice, and the many other reports and calls for change in Canada with the objective of achieving better recognition of Indigenous rights and self-determination. The Athabasca Tribal Council has created an excellent online resource, including guidance on shaping one’s own path to reconciliation here: www.orangepath.ca .
For those looking for events, many communities are also offering events this week to commemorate Orange Shirt Day and the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. In addition to events that may be occurring in your area, below are some events happening on the territory of the Songhees, Esquimalt and WSÁNEĆ peoples (Victoria), and Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, Stó:lō and Səl̓ílwətaʔ/Selilwitulh and xʷməθkʷəy̓əm Nations (Vancouver):
- September 27th-October 1st: Truth and Reconciliation Week Virtual Programming (online).
- September 27th, 1-3 pm: Film screenings and panel discussion at the University of Victoria’s Cinecenta – Savage(2009) Lisa Jackson, director, and Kuper Island: Return to the Healing Circle (1997) Christine Welsh, director.
- September 27th, 11am-1pm: Film screening and conversation with Phyllis Webstad at Chan Shun Concert Hall (Vancouver).
- September 28th, 7-9 pm: Film screenings at First Peoples House Ceremonial Hall (Victoria) – I’tustogalis: Rising Up Together – Our Voices, Our Stories(2015) Barb Cranmer, director, and Truth Dance and Reconciliation (2018) Barbara Hager, director.
- September 29th (all day): UVic Orange Shirt Day activities honouring the past, present, and future of truth and reconciliation at McPherson Library Fountain (Victoria)
- September 30th (noon): Victoria Orange Shirt Day ceremony at Centennial Square.
- September 30th (all day): Museum of Vancouver is offering complimentary admission to anyone wearing an orange shirt.
- September 30th (11:45 am-2pm): Intergenerational March with bannock and tea to commemorate Orange Shirt Day at UBC Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre (Vancouver).
Orange Shirt Day is a somber day and reflecting on the residential school system can be traumatic. Should you need support, here are some resources to consider:
- Indian Residential School Survivors Society Crisis Line: 24 hour crisis line for survivors and family of survivors. Toll-free: 1-866-925-4419.
- First Nations Health Authority Mental Health Benefits: FNHA partners with Indigenous Services Canada to offer a comprehensive mental health plan to First Nations in BC. The plan covers counselling services from a qualified mental health provider, including psychologists, clinical counsellors and social workers. Even if you do not have status, you may be eligible for mental health support.
- The KUU-US Crisis Line Society: 24 hour provincial Indigenous crisis line for Adults, Elders, and Youth. Toll-free: 1-800-588-8717.