Public exhibitions, educational sessions, communal walks and survivor testimonies will help British Columbians reflect on the legacies of Canada’s residential school system tomorrow on the 10th anniversary of Orange Shirt Day.
Events stretch across B.C. Sept. 30, from Taylor in the Peace River Region to Cranbrook in the Kootenays, from the Okanagan to Fraser Valley to Downtown Vancouver, which will host multiple events, to western Vancouver Island.
Phyllis Webstad, a Northern Secwepemc (Shuswap) from the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation (Canoe Creek Indian Band), started Orange Shirt Day in 2013. Webstad had received an orange shirt from her grandmother, only to see it ripped away after arriving at St. Joseph’s Indian Industrial School in Williams Lake.
The anniversary not only marks National Day for Truth and Reconciliation across Canada, but also the inauguration of a new statutory holiday in British Columbia after the provincial legislature had passed legislation in early March.
B.C. joins Prince Edward Island as the second Canadian province to formally commemorate the holiday with a paid-off holiday. The Northwest Territories, Nunavut and the Yukon also recognize Sept. 30 as a statutory holiday with the actual day falling on Monday, Oct. 2. Sept. 30 became a federally recognized holiday in 2021 following a recommendation from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
It defined the residential school system which existed for almost 150 years as a “systematic, government-sponsored attempt to destroy Aboriginal cultures and languages and to assimilate Aboriginal peoples so that they no longer existed as distinct peoples” as part of a “cultural genocide.”
Spread across more than 150 locations, the system forced more than 150,000 Indigenous children to attend sub-standard, over-crowded schools, where they frequently experienced harsh treatment, with many becoming victims of emotional, physical and sexual abuse.
While the search for the exact number of children who died in the system continues, current research pegs the number at more than 4,100 with other estimates pegging the number closer to 6,000.
Premier David Eby and Indigenous Relations Minister Murray Rankin said Sept. 30 recognizes the survivors and inter-generational survivors of the residential school system, as well as survivors of Indian Day Schools, Indian Hospitals and the Sixties Scoop, as well as the children who never came home.
“We have a solemn responsibility to listen to survivors, deepen our understanding of B.C.s and Canadas colonial histories, and address the systemic inequities that First Nations, Métis and Inuit people continue to experience,” they said in a statement. “On this 10th anniversary of Orange Shirt Day, we encourage everyone to learn about the history and ongoing legacy of residential schools, and to have discussions about how we can all take action to advance reconciliation.”
Both Eby and Rankin recognized Webstad and others for their role in launching Orange Day and its broader influence.
“Orange Shirt Day would not exist without the strength and courage of the campaigns founder, Phyllis Webstad,” they said. Her story of residential school survival, as well as those shared by Orange Shirt Day Victoria co-founder Eddy Charlie, the late Rick Gilbert, former Chief of Williams Lake First Nation, and many others, sparked a national conversation on the true history of this country.”
As for Webstad, she hopes that the statutory holiday will continue the conversation about the residential school system once all survivors all gone, while preventing a repeat of the system.