The story behind the orange shirt

Let’s Talk About It

Lori Deets

Imagine a day like today, a warm September day. Let’s pretend it was about 43 years ago. It was your very first day of school and you were so excited! Your mom or your grandma bought you some new clothes, a bright new orange shirt. But, no sooner did you get to school than your new clothes were stripped away from you, and so was your joy and excitement. You didn’t understand what was happening. Those were your things! Why were they being taken from you? No one bothered to explain this to you. No one cared that you were crying. No one asked what you were thinking. You did not matter.

To this day the color orange reminds you of that moment; the moment you realized they did not care about you, the moment you no longer mattered. Many years later you were asked to tell your story. You had no idea what to share. What did they want to hear? So, you told them that everyone in your family went to residential school and you shared the story of your orange shirt.

That was Phyllis Webstad’s story and it touched so many people that we now have Orange Shirt Day, a day to remember that every child matters.

Orange Shirt Day was born out of the legacy of the St. Joseph Mission (SJM) residential school commemoration event held in Williams Lake, BC in the spring of 2013. It grew out of Phyllis’ story of having her shiny new orange shirt taken away on her first day of school at the Mission, and it has become an opportunity to keep the discussion on all aspects of residential schools happening annually.

Sept. 30 is Orange Shirt Day. This year, you will see the schools and government agencies wearing orange on Sept. 29, as it falls on the Friday. Orange Shirt Day is a way to honour our residential school survivors for the horrors they went through, a way to share hope and to ensure our stories are being passed to the next generation.

One of the best legacies of the Orange Shirt Day movement is the bigger it grows, the more learning and awareness of the residential school system is happening. Children are learning the history of the First Peoples of Canada. This also means the attitudes and beliefs about Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples are changing also.

We can’t heal what we don’t acknowledge and without movements like Orange Shirt Day, reconciliation cannot occur. There are still many more steps on our journey to reconciliation, but today for a few moments, I encourage you to ponder the statement: every child matters. What does that mean to you?

As parents, grandparents, educators and community leaders, think about the precious impressionable children in your care. Do you encourage their individuality, their passion, their courage and their spirit? Are the children in your lives taught that they are valued beings, that they have a right to think, feel, and look however they choose? Do they feel that they can have short hair, long hair, or no hair? Do they feel comfortable wearing pants or dresses no matter their chosen gender, wearing jewelry or painting their fingernails ten different colours? It does not matter if they are a basketball star, an opera singer, or a kid who loves Harry Potter. Every child matters.

Please don’t forget to wear your orange around town today or tomorrow. My son and I will be wearing ours. Take a moment to think about the thousands of lives lost, the thousands of children swept away from happy and loving homes, and please say a prayer for the thousands of people still affected by the residential school legacy.