Warning: The story below contains details of residential schools that may be upsetting. Canada’s Indian Residential School Survivors and Family Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day at 1-866-925-4419.
On Saturday, Canada marks the annual National Day for Truth and Reconciliation to honour the Indigenous children who were forced to attend so-called residential schools and recognise the system’s lasting effects on Indigenous communities countrywide.
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The event was established as a federal holiday in 2021. Held each year on September 30, it coincides with an Indigenous-led initiative known as Orange Shirt Day.
Both aim to commemorate the more than 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Metis children who were forced to attend institutions of forced assimilation between the late 1800s and 1990s.
Run by churches, but funded by the Canadian government, residential schools were rife with physical, mental and sexual abuse, neglect and other forms of violence. They created a cycle of intergenerational trauma for Indigenous people across the country.
Here’s all you need to know about Orange Shirt Day:
Where did the idea for Orange Shirt Day come from?
Orange Shirt Day began a decade ago as a call by Indigenous people to honour residential school survivors, their families and their communities, as well as all the children who did not come home from the institutions.
The founders of Orange Shirt Day, who later formed the Orange Shirt Society non-profit, first commemorated the day in 2013 in Williams Lake, British Columbia.
The date — September 30 — was chosen because that was around the time each year that Indigenous children were separated from their families and sent to the residential schools.
How did it get its name?
The name refers to the orange shirt that Phyllis Webstad, the founder of Orange Shirt Day and a member of Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation, received from her grandmother before she was sent to residential school.
When she arrived at St Joseph’s Mission Residential School at age six, “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!” Webstad writes on the Orange Shirt Society’s website.
“The color orange has always reminded me of that and how my feelings didn’t matter, how no one cared and how I felt like I was worth nothing. All of us little children were crying and no one cared.”
How many people participate in Orange Shirt Day?
Thousands of people commemorate Orange Shirt Day each year by wearing orange.
The day has drawn greater attention amid recent discoveries of unmarked graves on former residential school sites, beginning with the uncovering of the remains of more than 200 Indigenous children in Kamloops, British Columbia, in May 2021.
The graves spurred calls for accountability from the government and churches that ran the institutions, particularly the Roman Catholic Church. In July of last year, Pope Francis apologised for the “evil” of residential schools.
What happens on Orange Shirt Day?
Marches will take place across Canada on Saturday to commemorate Orange Shirt Day and the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
The latter was created in response to a series of “calls to action”, released by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The commission — charged with conducting a federal inquiry into the residential school system — concluded in 2015 that the institutions perpetrated “cultural genocide” against Indigenous peoples.
In its 94 “calls to action”, the commission advocated for a statutory holiday to ensure “public commemoration” of that violent history and its legacy.
In a video shared online in 2016, Webstad said Orange Shirt Day is “a day for survivors to tell their stories and for us to listen with open hearts”.
“Every child matters, even if you’re an adult,” she said.