On Sept. 30, the annual Orange Shirt Day event that commemorates and educates about the history of the residential schooling system in Canada will be embracing a virtual format for the first time.
The 90-minute presentation titled Every Child Matters: Reconciliation Through Education is designed for students grades 5 to 12, though most adults will be able to appreciate the event agenda. Residential school survivors, Indigenous musicians and dancers, First Nations, Métis, and Inuit leaders will appear throughout the day.
More than 400,000 students and educators are scheduled to tune in.
Orange Shirt Day was founded in 2013 by Phyllis Jack Webstad, a student who in 1973 had a new item of clothing — an orange shirt — taken from her on her first day at a residential school when six years old.
“They stripped me, and took away my clothes, including the orange shirt! I never wore it again... The colour 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,” Webstad’s story reads on the Orange Shirt Day website.
The residential school system took Indigenous children away from their families and communities and stripped them of their culture, language, and identity. They operated in Canada from the late 1800s until the final federally funded school closed in 1996.
Orange Shirt Day now takes place each year on Sept. 30. It’s an important reminder of the history of residential schools in the first month of each new school year.
The 2015 Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada concluded that at least 3,201 children died in residential schools from conditions including malnourishment, tuberculosis and abuse.
“When I see people wearing an orange shirt or an Every Child Matters pin, for us survivors, it's like a little bit of justice in our lifetime for what happened to us,” Webstad said . Webstad is Northern Secwepemc (Shuswap) from the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation (Canoe Creek Indian Band), and currently serves as the executive director for the Orange Shirt Society.
Attendees of the event, as well as the general public, are encouraged to wear orange shirts on Wednesday as a sign of solidarity with residential school survivors.
Ry Moran, the director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, said that Wednesday’s online presentation shouldn’t be the end of the conversation about residential schools.
“Although we’re sharing this out on one day, this is not a one-day event in many ways,” Moran said. He encouraged teachers to use the event’s resource pages in order to find ways to expand the impact and continue their students’ education.
While in-person events supported with a broadcast were originally planned for this year’s edition of Orange Shirt Day, Moran said the various stakeholders realized by May that a virtual presentation was more feasible under current pandemic-related restrictions. The materials will be available all day via the centre’s website, allowing a national audience to cater the timing to their own availability.
Moran also warns attendees that the program’s material can be quite discomforting.
“The program does talk about issues of abuse because it’s something that we all need to be aware of,” Moran said, but added that it’s important to be sensitive towards “some of the more difficult aspects of the history that we’re dealing with.”
Moran said that teachers should check in on their students’ feelings and overall well-being following what can be a very challenging set of conversations.
“It’s very important that people talk about this and that those conversations are stimulated,” he said. “We want to be considerate and caring for the needs of the young people while also still sharing with them some very important truths that they need to have in order to understand this work of truth and reconciliation and walk this path of healing that we are all journeying on.”
One actionable piece that the event organizers are looking for is the future recognition of a national annual day of Day of Truth and Reconciliation that would allow all Canadians to reflect about the residential school system and honour its survivors.
Though 90 minutes is a relatively short period of time for the event, Moran is confident it will be beneficial to everyone who attends. “We hope it’s very impactful, inspiring and moving,” he said.
Adam Laskaris is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter with Windspeaker.com, where this article first appeared.