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Orange Shirt Day

In Canada today, people are commemorating Orange Shirt Day. This July, the Canadian government passed legislation to create the federal statutory holiday called the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation– also known as Orange Shirt Day, as it was named before the federal holiday was established. Orange Shirt Day is so named because the grandmother of a little girl (Phyllis Webstad) bought her an orange shirt to wear for her first day of school. As soon as the girl got to the school, the teachers took her shirt and all her belongings and destroyed them. September 30 was the day children typically started school, and now people wear orange shirts on that day “in recognition of the harm the residential school system did to children’s sense of self-esteem and well-being, and as an affirmation of our commitment to ensure that everyone around us matters.”  This is the day that First Nations, Métis, Inuit and other Canadians reflect on the legacy of residential schools for Indigenous peoples in Canada.

Prime Minister John A. MacDonald was responsible for the formal establishment of the residential schools system in 1876. He wrote, “[t]he great aim of our legislation has been to do away with the tribal system and assimilate the Indian people in all respects with the other inhabitants of the Dominion as speedily as they are fit to change.” The system was modeled in part on the residential school system in the United States. The Canadian government ran the schools in partnership with the Catholic, Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian and other churches; the government paid for the students on a per capita basis and the churches contributed to labor and some portion of the operational costs (Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report Executive Summary, p. 59 and 691). The school system operated from the 1870s to 1998; there were schools in all provinces, and it is estimated over 150,000 Indigenous, Métis and Inuit children attended the schools.

[Carlisle Indian School, Carlisle, Pa. Clothes mending class] [1901. Frances Benjamin Johnston, photographer.] Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Students at the schools were aged from four to sixteen. The Indian Act of 1920 was amended to allow the government to compel attendance for any First Nations, Inuit and Métis child (TRC ES, 69). Schools were residential “…not to educate them, but primarily to break their link to their culture and identity (TRC ES, 2).” In late 1800s and early 1900s, “most of the residential schools operated on what was referred to as the ‘half-day system’ (TRC ES, 78). This meant that teachers instructed students for a half day and the other half was spent in “vocational training” that in practice was usually manual labor meant to maintain school operations, e.g., laundry (Id.). The children were malnourished (TRC, Vol. 1, pt 2, 241). Students were punished for speaking their native languages; punishments for any infraction were severe (TRC, Vol. 1, pt. 2, 101-105). They were included in medical research without their parents’ knowledge or consent (TRC, Vol. 1, pt. 2, 220). They contracted diseases such as tuberculosis at a high frequency (TRC ES, 93). The children were physically, emotionally and sexually abused.

Many students ran away or hid, or their parents hid them, but they were often caught and returned or died in accidents while trying to run away. Generations of First Nations, Inuit and Métis children grew up being unfamiliar with family dynamics and subsequently had great difficulty raising their own children. The loss of cultural knowledge—language, ceremony, arts–was so great that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission referred to the residential schools system as “cultural genocide” (TRC ES, 1). The Commission estimated that during the span of the residential schools program, about 4,100 children died at the schools, based on death records, which are recognized as being very incomplete.

After the last school closed in the late 1990s, school survivors began to speak about their experiences, and a large number of survivors started filing suit against the churches and the government. Ultimately, on March 8, 2006, the Indian Residential Schools Agreement was issued. It is “the largest class action settlement in Canadian legal history, it was negotiated by several different parties representing Aboriginal organizations, religious orders, Indian residential school survivors, and the federal government.” The settlement agreement included a provision for the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and stipulated that its work would be done within five years. On June 11, 2008, the Prime Minister issued a formal apology to former students of residential schools on behalf of the government of Canada. The Commission issued its final reports and recommendations for reconciliation actions in 2015.

Kamloops Residential School Memorial, May 30th 2021. [Photo by Flickr user GoToVan. Used under CC 2.0 license.]

One might think that the settlement and the Commission’s report would allow survivors to begin to move forward. But on May 27, 2021, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir announced that the remains of 215 children had been discovered at Kamloops Residential School using ground-penetrating radar. More unmarked graves were located this summer: remains of 751 children were found at Marieval Indian Residential Schools, and remains of 160 children were found at Kuper Island Indian Residential School and at the sites of other schools. The discoveries have reopened wounds and conversations. As a result of these discoveries, investigations of Indigenous boarding schools here in the United States have begun as well. There were residential schools in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, California, Colorado and other states. Tribal nations want to honor their lost members.


KE7709.J67 2018 Joseph, Robert P. C. 21 things you may not know about the Indian Act : helping Canadians make reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples a reality.

KE7704 1981 Venne, Sharon Helen. Indian acts and amendments, 1868-1975 : an indexed collection.

E96.5.L69 2014 Loyie, Oskiniko Larry. Residential schools : with the words and images of survivors / Larry Loyie with Wayne K. Spear, Constance Brissenden.

E96.5.T782 2015b Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Volume one, Summary : honouring the truth, reconciling for the future.  (in footnotes as TRC ES)

E96.5.T776 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Canada’s residential schools : the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

Union of Ontario Indians. An Overview of the Indian Residential School System. 2013. (accessed 24 September 2021).

Indian Residential Schools Settlement – Official Court Website.  (accessed 24 September 2021).

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