Canada celebrates Orange Shirt Day

Merna Emara

Orange Shirt Day celebrations took place yesterday. Sept. 30 is a day to both honour Indigenous children who were sent away to residential schools and learn more about the history of those schools.

Indigenous communities in Fort Frances such as the Binesiwag Center for Wellness and the Weechi’ttewin Family Services held socially distanced events and distributed cupcakes, masks, bannock and wild rice soup.

Orange Shirt Day began in 2013 in Williams Lake, B.C. at the St. Joseph Mission residential school commemoration event.

Phyllis (Jack) Webstad, a residential school survivor was at the event when she told the story of how her new orange shirt was taken away from her.

“I went to the mission for one school year in 1973 and 1974. I had just turned six years old. We never had very much money, but somehow my granny managed to buy me a new outfit to go to the mission school. I remember going to Robinson’s store and picking out a shiny orange shirt. It had string laced up in front, and was so bright and exciting – just like I felt to be going to school,” Webstad said.

“When I got to the Mission, they stripped me and took away my clothes, including the orange shirt. I never wore it again. I did not understand why they would not give it back to me. It was mine. The colour orange has always reminded me of that and how my feelings did not matter, how no one cared and how I felt like I was worth nothing.”

About 150,000 Anishinaabe children attended residential schools. In 2019, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation published the names of 2,800 children who died in residential schools, some of them were never found.

Metis, Inuit and First Nation children were removed from their homes and families, sent to residential schools and forced to speak English or French instead of their ancestral languages.
Thousands of survivors of residential schools are struggling with intergenerational trauma, post-traumatic stress disorders and addictions.

“I went to a treatment centre for healing when I was 27, and have been on this healing journey since then. I finally get it, that the feeling of worthlessness and insignificance, ingrained in me from my first day at the mission, affected the way I lived my life for many years,” Webstad said.

“Even now, when I know nothing could be further than the truth, I still sometimes feel that I don’t matter, even with all the work I’ve done. I’m honoured to be able to tell my story so that others may benefit and understand, and maybe other survivors will feel comfortable enough to share their stories.”

The first residential school opened in 1831 in Brantford, Ontario. The last residential school closed in 1996.