Today marks Orange Shirt Day in Canada – a day when we recognize that Every Child Matters.
The national day grew from Phyllis Webstad’s story of being forced to give up her new orange shirt she proudly wore to her first day of school at St. Joseph Mission residential school in Williams Lake, B.C. In the 1970s. Her shirt was confiscated by staff and never returned.
She recently wrote on the Orange Shirt Day Facebook page that she felt like no one cared and she didn’t matter to anyone during her time at school. She channeled that heartache into the Every Child Matters movement. Since 2013, the event has spread across the country, and has become a day of reflection on the mistakes of our past, and the resolve to do better going forward. To honour the painful memories carried by our residential school survivors, and to mourn to the ones who never came home.
There are currently 80,000 residential school survivors alive in Canada, with the last school closing its doors in 1996. However, First Nations children to this day endure an unacceptable “otherness” in the education system. Many, particularly those from the Treaty #9 and Treaty #5 territories, are forced to leave the support and safety of their home communities, just to finish high school. Many are billeted in Thunder Bay, with families paid to care for them. But they have been far from safe. Between 2000 and 2011, seven youths lost their lives while pursuing their education in Thunder Bay. Their parents loved them enough to send them hundreds of kilometres to pursue their education, but they never made it home. Jethro Anderson, 15, Curran Strang, 18, Robyn Harper, 19, Paul Panacheese, 21, Reggie Bushie, 15, Kyle Morrisseau, 17 and Jordan Wabasse,15. They matter. They matter to their families, and their stories need to matter to all of us. Their deaths launched a coroner’s inquest, with resulted in 145 recommendations. Four years later, many are still not implemented.
What a gut-wrenching decision parents in these communities must be faced with – keep their kids at home without a basic education, or send them far away, into potential danger. Now, due to COVID-19, the schools they would have attended are only online, adding a further barrier – those without reliable internet are now barred from accessing school at all.
Education is a basic right of every child in the country. Residential schools have thankfully closed, but barriers to a safe, supportive education still persists for many remote First Nations youth. No child should be made to feel “less than,” by being forced to jump so many hurdles for a basic education.
As we put on our orange shirts, pay respect to those who suffered in the Residential School system, think of those who never came home, and the generations of pain that has caused. But also think about how we can do better going forward, because every child truly does matter.