September 22, 2019
Raven Morand and her orange shirt. Photo by Clara Montgomery, Spoke News

By Clara Montgomery, Spoke News

Again this year, Indigenous communities welcomed non-Indigenous people to wear orange on Sept. 30. Orange Shirt Day falls annually on this day and commemorates what happened to Indigenous students at residential schools.

“The legacy that residential schools left is pretty big. There’s intergenerational trauma,” said Raven Morand, a Conestoga College student who is Ojibwa. “You’ll have generations of people’s kids and their grandkids suffering because of residential schools. It was such a complete cultural genocide that happened to this group of people.”

Orange Shirt Day began in 2013 when residential school survivor Phyllis Jack Webstad discussed her experiences there at an event for other survivors. Webstad’s grandmother had bought her a new outfit to wear to school for her first day at St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School in Williams Lake, B.C.

“I remember going to Robinson’s store and picking out a shiny orange shirt,” said Webstad, who was six years old at the time. “When I got to the mission, they stripped me and took away my clothes, including the orange shirt. I never wore it again. I didn’t understand why they wouldn’t give it back to me. It was mine.”

You can read more of Webstad’s experience on Orange Shirt Day’s official website.

Orange Shirt Day falls on Sept. 30 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,” according to Orange Shirt Day’s website.

“My kids go to Catholic school in Cambridge and they were wearing orange shirts today,” said Conestoga Aboriginal Services staff member Geoff Pereira on Friday. “I was thinking on the way to dropping them off, ‘What if teachers don’t know about it? How would a six- or seven-year-old explain why they’re wearing an orange shirt today?’ And I thought ‘If only there was some simple description to talk about the historical context of the residential school system, what intergenerational trauma means to Indigenous people and why it’s important to everyone else —why it should be part of an education system.’”

When it comes to what Orange Shirt Day means, it appears that commemorating residential school victims is only the tip of the iceberg.

“We have a concept called blood memory, which means you are born with memory,” said Peter Schuler, an elder of the Mississaugas New Credit First Nation, when asked about what intergenerational trauma means to Indigenous people. “If your grandparents, parents, great-grandparents, all went to residential school, even though you never went there, you can be born with this memory in you. And you may not recognize what it is. You might just be angry all the time, some things just trigger you to be angry or afraid, and it comes from that. That’s the really deep meaning of intergenerational trauma.”

Peter Schuler, an elder of the Mississaugas New Credit First Nation. Photo by Clara Montgomery, Spoke News.

“I still meet people who are in their 30s, 20s, never heard of residential school. And this is because Canada has not told the true history of the country,” Schuler continued.

Orange Shirt Day provides an opportunity for everyone to learn about the dark history of residential schools.

“Orange Shirt Day to me means that we are remembering all of the people and all the survivors from residential schools,” said Morand. “To me personally, it feels like a bridge to reconciliation, where we can spark important dialogue about the things that happened and how over generations this has caused trauma to other people. I think it’s a sombre day for us to really remember, take back our culture, love our loved ones and hold them close.”

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