How Orange Shirt Day came to be — and what it means

September 30 will now be marked as the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. Since 2013, it’s been Orange Shirt Day. But its roots stretch back long before that
By Charnel Anderson - Published on Sep 30, 2021
Residential-school survivor Phyllis Webstad, founder of Orange Shirt Day, speaks in Vancouver on September 16, 2021. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

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In September 1973, Phyllis Webstad, who had just turned six, was excited for her first day of school at St. Joseph’s Mission Indian Residential School near Williams Lake, in British Columbia. Webstad was living with her grandmother at the time, and while the family did not have much money, her grandmother had taken her to the store to buy a new outfit. Webstad picked out an orange shirt. 

“It was bright and exciting, just how I felt to be going to school for the first time,” says Webstad in a video posted on the Orange Shirt Day website

When she got to school, Webstad, who is Northern Secwépemc from Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation and a third-generation residential-school survivor, says they took her clothes away, including the orange shirt. “No matter how much I cried and wanted it back, no one would listen,” says Webstad. “I never wore my shirt again.”

Webstad first shared her story about the orange shirt in 2013; the first Orange Shirt Day was held that year on September 30 in the Cariboo Chilcotin region of British Columbia. What began as a grassroots initiative is now marked across the country as part of an effort to raise awareness of the legacy of Canada’s residential-school system. 

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In July, the federal government passed legislation recognizing September 30 as the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. The decision was a response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action, which ask the federal government to collaborate with Indigenous peoples to establish a statutory holiday to honour residential-school survivors and their families and to commemorate the system’s harmful legacy. 

National Indigenous Peoples Day, which falls on June 21, was also proposed as a possibility for the holiday. After consulting with Indigenous groups, the federal government decided it should fall on September 30. In a statement issued in June, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that “the goal is to encourage Canadians to learn about and reflect on our country’s history and present day truths, as well as to commemorate the survivors, their families, and their communities.”

Some provinces — including Manitoba and Nova Scotia — have also formally recognized September 30 as a statutory holiday. Others, such as Ontario, British Columbia, Alberta, and New Brunswick, have not. In a statement to CTV News Toronto, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Indigenous Affairs said, “National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is not a provincial public holiday this year,” adding that “employers and employees may agree to treat the day as such.”

Nishnawbe Aski Nation Deputy Grand Chief Anna Betty Achneepineskum hopes that the holiday will be an opportunity for non-Indigenous people to reflect. “The impacts of residential school is what I have to work with every day,” she says. “It’s a good start that the federal government has commemorated this one day. We hope that it will be enough for Canadians, those that are non-Indigenous, to perhaps take this seriously and say, ‘Yes, this really happened.’”

Today, Achneepineskum plans to attend a sacred fire at the site of the former St. Joseph’s Indian Residential School in Thunder Bay. “This day represents the opportunity to learn, and it represents a day to remember those that never came home, and it represents a day that we need to pursue the truth about this country,” she says.

Webstad encourages everyone to wear an orange shirt on September 30. “When you wear an orange shirt, it’s like a little bit of justice for us survivors in our lifetime — and recognition of a system we can never allow again.” 

Support is available to anyone affected by their experience at residential schools and to those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support to former students and those affected. People can access emotional-support and crisis-referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

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