The Story of Orange Shirt Day

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Author’s Note: This blog discusses indigenous residential schools and the traumatic effects that they have had on the indigenous community in Canada and may awaken memories of abuse and traumatic experiences. The National Residential School Crisis Line provides 24-hour support for former students and their families. You can call toll-free at 1-866-925-4419.

It was the first day of school for six-year-old Phyllis Webstad in 1973. She clearly remembers that day: she was wearing a brand-new orange shirt given to her by her grandmother. New clothes were an exciting and rare thing for the little girl raised by her grandmother, after all. But as soon as she got to St. Joseph Mission Residential School, she was quickly stripped of all of her clothes, including her brand-new orange shirt, by mission oblates (the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines oblates as a “layman living in a monastery under a modified rule without vows”), and given the school’s uniform.

She never got her clothes back, including the orange shirt.

A rusted, old swing set stands in the foreground while an abandoned, cream color building stands ominously in the background against a blue sky. it's windows are broken and the grounds are overgrown.
St. Joseph Mission Residential School

For her, the color orange has constantly reminded her that no one cared for her, her feelings didn’t matter, and she was worth nothing to the mission oblates, the Church, and Canada. In many ways, it has also become a bigger symbol than just being forgotten: it’s a symbol of how the indigenous culture was ripped from the tribes of Canada.

From 1883 to 1997, more than 150,000 children were forcibly removed from their homes to attend these boarding schools. Their “education” focused on Christianity, manual labor, and cultural assimilation – it was cultural genocide. Children would be physically abused if they were caught speaking their native language. Because of that, the languages have almost all been lost, along with stories and traditions.

Conditions inside the residential schools were abhorrent. The schools were poorly built with inadequate ventilation, no hospital wings for sick children, and improper heating. Children were also malnourished from a lack of sufficient nutrition. Officially, over four thousand kids were reported to have died at residential schools, though the number may be higher with the discovery of unmarked mass graves on or near school grounds. Many of the deaths are attributed to tuberculosis – though the argument could be made that malnourishment was undoubtedly a factor. In 1907, the Chief Medical Officer for the Department of Indian Affairs, P. H. Bryce, visited 35 government-funded schools. He reported that 25% of all the children who attended the residential schools had died – with one school having 69% of its students die.

Bryce wasn’t the only one who spoke up about the condition of the schools – hundreds of people did throughout their tenure, but no one listened. And while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Pope Francis have since apologized for the parts the Canadian government and the Church played in the horrors of residential schools, the scars of trauma still run very deep both for the survivors and their families.

In 2013, former student Chief Fred Robbins of the Esketemc Tribe brought together other prior students and their families, mayors, school districts, and civil organizations from the Cariboo Regional District to honor and witness the healing of the survivors and to commemorate the residential school experience. The day’s participants were challenged to keep the reconciliation process alive so children wouldn’t be forgotten anymore.

From this project, Orange Shirt Day came to fruition. It’s held on September 30th – the date chosen because it’s the time of year that children would be forced to attend these schools. It also opens the discussion for anti-racism and anti-bullying in schools and is an opportunity to discuss the effects of residential schools and continue the reconciliation process.

The horrors of residential schools in Canada are reflected here in the United States with Native American boarding schools that were in operation from as early as the late 1600s to the mid-20th century. Mass graves have also been found at or near boarding schools, with the Department of the Interior reporting that deaths could reach the thousands.

As professionals in the promotional products industry, we know how important a piece of clothing can be – it can be the spark to start a conversation. The industry is in the perfect position to help bring awareness, raise money, and open up discussions about residential schools and their effects on survivors and their families.

So how can you help?

A great place to start is by donating directly to the organization itself.

If you’d like to take a more active approach and get the word out about the organization and Orange Shirt Day in your community and produce shirts, it’s first essential to ensure that you’re following the Orange Shirt Society’s branding and copyright policy as well as donation guidelines and approval processes. For example, the slogan “Every Child Matters” must be included on all shirts, and the organization must approve all merchandise before production. They also have a downloadable fact sheet here.

Another excellent way to get involved more with the community and Orange Shirt Day with local indigenous tribes and businesses, especially those that are indigenous-owned and operated, would be to host an event. Consider selling shirts, stickers, and yard signs with proceeds going to the Orange Shirt Society. Invite indigenous artisans to sell their goods.

Additionally, if there are survivors in your community who are open and willing to share their accounts of living in a residential school, providing the opportunity for them to do so would be an impactful experience. It is important to remember, however, that due to the survivors’ traumatic experiences, they may not be able to share their stories as they are still processing their trauma and healing.

To hear how other industry professionals support Orange Shirt Day check out this podcast hosted by PPPC, where they spoke with the president of Tough Duck (USA SAGE# 69672, Canadian SAGE# 52238) about their Orange Shirt Day initiatives.

Let’s partner together to bring awareness and sell out the industry of orange shirts for Orange Shirt Day. Every Child Matters.

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(Marketing Content Writer)

Betty is the Marketing Content Writer at SAGE. She is a self-proclaimed, bonafide nerd, and when she's not writing, you can find her playing video games, watching documentaries, hunting for heavy metal records, and going down rabbit-holes on Wikipedia.

One Comment

  1. The abuse continues right at home in plain sight. Government schools have been imposing unscientific mandates and protocols that for three years that have seriously harmed our children and trying to bring them back. We need to wake up to this abuse and protect our kids. Ask questions. Know when to say no. My blog this week on "invalidation"

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