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Orange Shirt Day honours the students of residential schools, and educates others

The Montreal Gazette by Hilary Rose 29 September 2016

Six-year-old Phyllis’s excitement about her first day of school was short-lived. She was thrilled to wear her brand-new orange shirt. But her school was St. Joseph’s Mission in Williams Lake, B.C. (a residential school), and Phyllis was stripped and put in a uniform. She never saw her orange shirt again. More than 40 years later, orange still reminds Phyllis of her residential school experience. Since 2013, Phyllis Webstad and other Canadians have worn orange on Sept. 30.

I observe Orange Shirt Day because in 1991 Canada ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, but Canada’s last residential school didn’t close until 1996. Article 2 states that ratifying nations “shall respect and ensure the rights set forth in the present Convention to each child … without discrimination of any kind irrespective of … national, ethnic, or social origin.”

Article 3 states “the institutions, services, and facilities responsible for the … protection of children shall conform with standards established by competent authorities.” As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report about residential schools found, for almost 150 years Canada neither respected the rights of children sent to those schools (Article 2), nor protected those children (Article 3). In fact, just the opposite.

I am observing Orange Shirt Day because “we are all treaty people” in Canada, even when we’re not. Between 1871 and 1921, 11 numbered treaties were signed between the British Crown and indigenous peoples, mostly on the prairies and northern territories (a handful of other treaties were signed before Confederation, and again since 1921 in other parts of Canada, including Quebec). And although I have always lived on unceded territory, both in B.C. and in Quebec, my relatives lived on land acquired from the Chippewa and Cree peoples in southern Manitoba by Treaty No. 1 in 1871.

Treaties are signed by a minimum of two parties. One of those parties signed on behalf of Canadians. The treaty terms included providing an education for indigenous children. As the TRC report showed, residential schools were a violation of the terms of those treaties.

I observe Orange Shirt Day because apologizing is not enough. In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized to residential schools survivors, referring to “a sad chapter in our history.” As the TRC report made clear, Canada needs to go beyond rhetoric to reconciliation. Senator Murray Sinclair said at the release of the TRC report in 2015, “We have described for you a mountain. We have shown you a path to the top. We call upon you to do the climbing.”

It is not enough to talk the talk; Canadians have to walk the walk. The TRC report concluded with 94 Calls to Action — steps that we, as a nation, as individuals, can take to begin to redress the tragic legacy of the residential schools and to further the process of reconciliation. Although not explicitly one of the Calls to Action, wearing an orange shirt on Orange Shirt Day will allow me not only to acknowledge residential school survivors, but also to educate my students about Canada’s shameful history.

Some say indigenous people should “get over it.” As researchers who study the effects of personal and collective trauma tell us, however, it’s not that easy. As well, as research shows (for example, by Amy Bombay and her colleagues at Carleton University), the impact of residential school attendance has been transmitted to following generations.

This year, on Sept. 30, I am wearing an orange shirt. I wear it in honour of residential school survivors, their children, and their grandchildren. I wear it in honour of those children who didn’t survive their residential school experience. I wear it to inform my students about Canada’s sad chapter of cultural genocide. Will you be wearing orange on Orange Shirt Day?

Hilary Rose is an associate professor in applied human sciences at Concordia University. Her research focuses on at-risk youth. She lives in the Montreal area, on unceded Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) territory.