Why we wear orange on Sept. 30

“They were not schools. They were weapons of genocide.”

CW: This article deals with a disturbing and violent subject that may trigger some readers.

Thousands of Indigenous children suffered violence and neglect in the Indian Residential School system, which operated in Canada for more than 100 years. The Canadian Government created these institutions to separate Indigenous children from their families, erase their culture and languages, and forcefully assimilate them into Canadian society. They were not schools. They were weapons of genocide. 

In 2021, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced that they had discovered evidence of 215 unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. While Indigenous communities knew that many children died in these “schools,” the discovery shocked many Canadians and renewed conversations about the awful impacts of settler colonialism.  

Back in 2013, Esketemc (Alkali Lake) Chief Fred Robbins, a residential school survivor, launched the St. Joseph Mission (SJM) Residential School Commemoration Project and Reunion. This project gave birth to Orange Shirt Day (Sept 30) which was inspired by former student Phyllis (Jack) Webstad’s experience. Below is an excerpt from her story the Orange Shirt Society’s website:

I went to the Mission for one school year in 1973/1974. I had just turned 6 years old. I lived with my grandmother on the Dog Creek reserve. 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!

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! 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.

In August of 2021, the Government of Canada established a National Holiday for Truth & Reconciliation to take place every Sept. 30. BC still does not recognize it with a statutory holiday, despite the efforts of Indigenous groups, who have spoken loud and clear: all workers, including the many Indigenous people who work for private businesses, need a paid day off on Sept. 30. 

Having the day off to remember loved ones, connect with their communities, and share their truth with others is especially important to Indigenous UFCW 1518 members. For non-Indigenous members it would be a day to reach out to First Nations bands and agencies near you and see what you can attend. You will be welcome if you come with good intentions and love in your hearts.

Want to support an Indigenous organization today? Donate to the Residential School Survivors Society.