Every Child Matters – Orange Shirt Day

Orange shirt day is recognized annually in Canada on Sept 30. Its purpose is to create awareness to the emotional and physical damage that was inflicted upon the Indigenous people by residential schools.

It is a time to reflect upon the hardships and loss the people faced during this time. A time for all people to come together and heal. Not only to remember the injustices of this era, but also to celebrate the resilience of the Indigenous people.

It is another affirmation that every child matters. That we make sure that this doesn’t happen again!

Equally important, it is a time for healing and reconciliation.

Residential Schools in Canada

Residential schools in Canada were the collaboration of the Canadian government and the Christian churches. The purpose of the schools was to educate and convert the Indigenous youth to Canadian society. There were 130 residential schools in operation across Canada between 1831 and 1996.

The first residential school to open was in 1831.

It was the Mohawk Institute Residential School and it was situated near Brantford, Ontario. It was originally intended to be a day school to educate the Six Nations boys.

However, shortly after the school’s opening it began accepting boarding students. Because of the need for more schools, other residential schools were opened to accommodate the children. Their purpose was to educate them.

The Indian Act

In 1867 the Indian Act was implemented. The government of Canada was required to educate all Indigenous youth. The Indian Act made it illegal for Indigenous children to attend any other educational institute. This meant that they needed to open even more schools.

By 1920 it became mandatory for all Indigenous youths between the ages of 4-16 to attend a government run residential school. Because of this, the government had to open even more schools to accommodate the need.

At these schools the Indigenous children were housed and educated. This was carried out under the strict supervision of the government and the church.

Residential schools quickly began to stray from their purpose of education. They began to forcibly convert the children to Canadian culture, Christianity and society.

As a result, the children were stripped of their own native heritage, customs and culture.

The schools that were intended to educate the children now did little more than to destroy both the children and their families. Separated from their families, they faced abuse from the priests and educators of the schools. They were allowed no contact with their families. Unfortunately, this went on for years!

The Origin Of Orange Shirt Day

In 1973 Phyllis Webstad lived in Williams Lake. B.C. She was set to attend her first day of school at St. Joseph’s Residential school. She was happy and looked for to going there.

Phyllis’s grandmother had given her a bright orange shirt to wear to school that day. Filled with anticipation, she left for school proudly wearing her bright orange shirt!

However, her excitement soon turned to sadness. Arriving at the Mission school she was promptly stripped of all her clothing including her coveted orange shirt. She was given a uniform to wear and she never saw her orange shirt again.

The orange shirt that had once filled her with happiness and excitement now left her with feelings of sadness and despair. Ever since that day she associates the shirt and its color with her feelings of emptiness, worthlessness and loss. Phyllis believed that no one cared what happened to the children at the residentials schools. Their rights, freedoms and happiness were all stripped away along with their clothing.

Every Child Matters now, but not then!

The children were horribly mistreated and abused during their stay at the schools. They suffered mental, physical and even sexual abuse at the hands of their educators.

The schools imposed strict rules and guidelines upon the children. They were quick to punish those that didn’t obey them.

Not only were the children not allowed to speak in their native language, they could not practice any of their native cultural traditions.

They were forbidden from having any contact with their own siblings that also attended the school. Some form of punishment awaiting those who did not conform to the rules.

The Fate Of The Children

Sadly, some of these children would never return home from school. Many of them would perish at the schools, While some died from illness and neglect, others would die from the abuse they received at the schools. The children that did die while at the schools were buried in unmarked graves on the school property.

Often, the parents were not notified of their children’s deaths.

This left the families to wonder the fate of their children. They never got the closure that they so desperately needed.

Due to the lost and incomplete school records, an accurate account of how many of the indigenous children died while at residential schools is not available. But a conservative estimate has put the count at between 4000 to 6000 children.

Over the years there have been remains of children found on former residential school sites. As recently as 2021, the graves of over 200 more children were discovered at a at a former residential school site in Kamloops, British Columbia.

Orange Shirt Day

Orange shirt day is a day to remember the pain and suffering that was inflicted upon the Indigenous children and their families. Suffering that was directly caused by their stay at residential schools.

The Indigenous people today still suffer the consequences of those days. The pain raises its head through addictions that are caused by their feelings of worthlessness. It has also resulted in severe depression and even suicide.

Orange shirt day is a day that we need to take some time and to grieve from their sufferings. As well, it is a time to try and understand and remember what they themselves have never forgotten. To applaud their courage, strength and determination to overcome the past.

The days of residential schools were a shameful period in Canada’s history. We can’t change the past, but we can move forward and make sure nothing like this ever happens again. You can’t just take away someone’s culture and then replace it with your own. This was absolutely shameful!

On orange shirt day, show your support, understanding and compassion. By wearing an orange shirt you are also acknowledging that the actions taken by the government and churches was wrong and immoral. Atrocities happened at these schools that should never have happened to anyone, Least of all to children !

Stand up, be counted and make yourself heard. Wear an orange shirt.

Regardless of color, race or financial status EVERY CHILD MATTERS…. always!

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