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Justin Quaintance

Orange Shirt Day a positive step for all

By Simran Kaler, October 11 2016 —

On Sept. 30, the Werklund School of Education and the Alberta provincial government encouraged students to wear orange shirts in honour of residential school survivors. This can in no way atone for the past. But starting to remember, rather than hiding it, will begin a path of healing for indigenous Canadians.

Orange Shirt Day is inspired by the story of Phyllis Webstad, who was sent to a residential school when she was six years old. She lived with her grandmother at the time and, though money was tight, her grandmother scraped together enough to buy her an outfit for her first day of school. Phyllis picked out a shiny orange shirt, excited to show it off for her first day. But when she entered the school, she was stripped and her beloved orange shirt was taken away, never to be seen again.

Orange Shirt Day is now a way for residential school survivors to tell their stories, since many were ignored and forced to quietly suffer for decades. Children at residential schools experienced cultural genocide, being cut off from their culture and family, as well as physical and sexual abuse. A generation of children was left to manage this pain and trauma on their own.

Residential schools and the horrifying treatment of indigenous peoples were Canada’s dirty little secret for years. The last residential school only closed in 1996. The Canadian government didn’t publicly acknowledge the trauma until June 11, 2008. Stephen Harper said that “[t]he government now recognizes that the consequences of the Indian Residential Schools policy were profoundly negative” — an understatement, to say the least.

I never learned about residential schools until junior high. Parents and schools might worry residential school history is “too morbid” to be taught to children. But residential schools happened in Canada and racism towards indigenous people continue today.

The movement to educate and acknowledge is growing. Orange Shirt Day is a good start. Students have a right to understand Canada in its entirety, even the ugly past.

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