Orange Shirt Day and the History of Residential Schools
On September 30th we recognize Orange Shirt Day as a time to reflect and bring forth discussion about a devastating part of Canada’s colonial history: The Indian Residential School system. The date of September 30th was chosen because it is the time of year in which children were taken from their homes to residential schools, and because it is an opportunity to set the stage for anti-racism and anti-bullying policies for the coming school year. It is an opportunity for First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples, and local governments, schools and communities to come together in the spirit of reconciliation and hope for generations of children to come.
Orange Shirt Day first began in Williams Lake, BC to witness and honour the healing journey of residential school survivors, and it is now recognized by schools, children and educators across Canada. The orange shirt represents the story of a student named Phyllis Webstad, who was given a new orange shirt by her grandmother for the first day of school at St. Joseph’s Mission residential school in British Columbia. Sadly, Phyllis did not get to wear her orange shirt proudly as it was taken away, along with her other personal items. This was a common scene at residential schools.
Between 1831 and 1996, residential schools operated in Canada through arrangements between the Government of Canada and the church, with the last school closing in Saskatchewan only 24 years ago. One common objective defined this period: the assimilation of Aboriginal children. Children between the ages of four to 16 attended these schools, and it is estimated that over 150,000 First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children attended Indian residential school, about 10 percent of the present-day Indigenous population.
Residential schools aimed to eliminate First Nations, Metis, and Inuit culture across Canada and disrupted and separated families for generations. They severed the ties through which Indigenous culture is taught and sustained, contributing to a general loss of language and traditions. Because children were removed from their families, many students grew up without experiencing a nurturing family life and without the knowledge and skills to raise their own families, nor connect to their communities through culture. Children were not allowed to speak their traditional languages, wear traditional clothing or regalia, or practice traditional ceremonies. If these strict rules were broken, students were punished with deep severity. Survivors of residential schools have spoken of horrendous abuse at the hands of teachers, religious officials and staff. Children experienced physical, sexual, emotional, and psychological abuse that would go on to affect them and their families for generations. The education taught at residential schools was severely inferior to the education given to white settler students. Often students were only educated up to grade five, and most of the training focused on menial labour, such as farm work, woodworking or domestic labour. Students were separated based on colonial classification of gender, with brothers and sisters unable to see or touch each other.
The devastating effects of Indian residential schools are far-reaching and continue to have a significant impact on Indigenous communities. Because the government’s and the churches’ intent was to eradicate all aspects of Indigenous culture in these young people and interrupt its passing from one generation to the next, the residential school system is commonly considered a form of cultural genocide.
The following quote, pulled from the National Archives of Canada, illustrates the sentiment behind Indian Residential Schools in the 1920’s:
“I want to get rid of the Indian problem. I do not think as a matter of fact, that the country ought to continuously protect a class of people who are able to stand alone… Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department.” -Duncan Campbell Scott, Department of Indian Affairs, 1920, National Archives of Canada
There are currently 80,000 residential school survivors alive in Canada today. This number does not reflect the generational survivors of residential school, many of whom are children or teens needing support, love and care.
On this day of September 30th, we call upon humanity to listen with open ears to the stories of survivors and their families and to remember those who lost their lives. Speak to a friend, a family member, or maybe a neighbour, and share with them information about Orange Shirt Day. Let us all spark a conversation and honour First Nations, Metis, and Inuit culture. Indigenous youth are resilient, and they are our future for hope and reconciliation.
Find out more information at the Legacy of Hope Foundation: http://legacyofhope.ca/en_ca/wherearethechildren/
Please contact the 24 Hour Residential School Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419 if you require emotional support.
This article was written by Seren Friskie, the Youth Engagement Coordinator for Foundry. This article is dedicated to Trevor Friskie, her late uncle and an Intergenerational Survivor of Residential School.
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