What is Orange Shirt Day?

August 28, 2020

This article has been viewed by 125,000+ people who want to learn about Orange Shirt Day. Thank you for your interest and contribution to recognition of Ms. Webstad's initiative, and for bringing awareness to the residential school legacy. Your interest and actions are helping change the world!

Orange shirt day is a movement that officially began in 2013 but in reality it began in 1973 when six year old Phyllis Webstad entered the St. Joseph Mission Residential School, outside of Williams Lake, BC. Young Phyllis was wearing a brand new orange shirt for her first day of school – new clothes being a rare and wonderful thing for a First Nation girl growing up in her grandmother’s care - but the Mission Oblates quickly stripped her of her new shirt and replaced it with the school’s institutional uniform.

orange-shirt-dayWhile she only attended for one year the impact affected Ms. Webstad’s life for many years. “I finally get it, that feeling of worthlessness and insignificance, ingrained in me from my first day at the mission, affected the way I lived my life for many years. Even now, when I know nothing could be further than the truth, I still sometimes feel that I don’t matter.” [1]

Ms. Webstad’s story is the nucleus for what has become a national movement to recognize the experience of survivors of Indian residential schools, honour them, and show a collective commitment to ensure that every child matters. The initiative calls for every Canadian to wear an orange shirt on September 30 in the spirit of healing and reconciliation.

The date, September 30, was chosen because that was the time of the year the trucks and buses would enter the communities to “collect” the children and deliver them to their harsh new reality of cultural assimilation, mental, sexual and physical abuse, shame and deprivation.

Indian residential schools operated across Canada between 1831 and 1996. In its comprehensive report in June 2015 on the residential school policy, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada declares "establishment and operation of residential schools were a central element of this policy, which can best be described as “cultural genocide.”" [emphasis added]

Listen to my conversation with my father, Chief Robert Joseph O.C, O.B.C, about his first day at St. Michael's Residential School and how he felt when he took his children to school many years later. 

The earliest recognized and longest running residential school was the Mohawk Institute in Brantford, Ontario (1831 – 1962). The last federally run residential school to close was Gordon’s School in Punnichy, Saskatchewan, which closed in 1996 and subsequently decommissioned. Here's an article on the decommissioning of St. Michael's Indian Residential School in early 2015.

During the residential school era it is estimated that:

  • 150,000 children attended these schools
  • Over 6,000 died while attending these schools (based on partial federal government records)
  • Approximately 80,000 survivors of these schools are alive today

It wasn't until the release in 2015 of the report of Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and its 94 calls for action for reconciliation that the details of this brutal and horrifying part of Canada’s history began to be realized by Canadians. Astonishing as that is, what is equally astonishing, and what needs to be recognized and celebrated, is the resilience and bravery of the survivors and their families. Survivors are turning to their cultural roots, reviving traditions, languages, and finding strength in family and community to heal. This resiliency is what needs to be supported and celebrated because this is the path to reconciliation and a better future for all Canadians.

The impact of residential schools affects every Canadian – what can you do to show your support and recognition? Here are some suggestions:

Purchase an “Every child matters” t shirt for yourself, your family, your co-workers;

Plan a school event:

It is suggested that a planning committee be established, as early as possible in the year, and that local First Nations be included on the committee.

Ideas for school activities:
1.      Watch the Shaw video of Phyllis’s story.
2.      Discussion around “Every Child Matters.” 
3.      Simple activities, eg. Children trace their hand, then write in the hand something they can do to help others feel like they matter.

Plan a community event:
Sample agenda for community ceremony (Include local First Nations protocol)

  • Welcome to traditional territory by Chief
  • Opening prayer and drumming
  • Greetings from federal and/or provincial government officials
  • Welcome by Mayor and/or other local government representative, School Board
  • Residential school survivor or family member speaking about residential school
  • Entertainment and/or children’s activity.” [2]

If you are a teacher of primary students, here's a list of age appropriate books on residential schools.

Here's another resource: The Residential Schools in Canada education guide aims to raise awareness of the history of residential schools in Canada. It offers classroom activities that you can use to explore this difficult topic. Download it for free.

In August 2018, the federal government announced it would declare a federal statutory holiday to mark the legacy of the residential school system. September 30th has been chosen as the date and was on the federal government's agenda in January 2020 but due to the urgency of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, we haven't heard anything further. We will update this article if and when the holiday is official. 

[1] Orange Day website

[2] ibid

 If you're wondering where to begin your path to reconciliation, consider downloading our free Pledge of Reconciliation. 


Topics: Indian Residential Schools, Reconciliation

    New call-to-action

    About this Blog

    Let this blog be your guide to Working Effectively with Indigenous Peoples®. We have hundreds of articles loaded with tips, suggestions, videos, and free eBooks for you. Happy reading!

    Subscribe to the Indigenous Relations Newsletter

    Recent Posts

    Indigenous Corporate Training Inc., provides information on this blog for free as a resource for those seeking information about Indigenous Peoples in Canada. Readers looking for more detailed information, or who have questions, can sign up for our fee-for-service training. Also, ICT encourages everyone who reads this information to use their best judgment given their own circumstances, vulnerabilities, and needs, and to contact a consulting or legal professional if you have more specific questions. Join the conversation over on our Linkedin page.