This week Thursday September 30th will be the first National Day of Truth & Reconciliation - at least the first year it’s recognized as a national stat holiday. A lot of people already know it as “Orange Shirt Day” which was started by Phyllis Webstad, who distinctly remembers her orange shirt being confiscated the day she arrived at residential school. The day now marks a reclamation of that orange shirt and all that it represents. There’s a film showcasing her story in this year’s VIFF (Oct 1 to 11th) called “Returning Home” - I look forward to seeing that one.
My Aunty who works in the school district was telling me the other day that she remembers previous Orange Shirt Days where she arrived at school to find students and teachers alike dancing and celebrating Indigenous culture in the gymnasium. It was awkward for her, as the Native resource worker, as I'm sure it would be for any Indigenous person caught in that situation.
Being that this is the first year that we’re acknowledging Orange Shirt Day as a stat holiday, it is still a time where we’re collectively figuring out what this means and how we can respectfully participate. Its ok to not know. And here are my two cents.
Orange Shirt Day is not a day for celebration. When I think of it, even anticipating it's arrival this week, I am reminded of another stat holiday we recognize each year: Remembrance Day on November 11th. In the weeks leading up to this day, I place a plastic velvet poppy on my jacket lapel. Not because I know anyone who fought in that war. But because I respect and honour the people who did, and those families who continue to remember and feel the impact of their sacrifice to this day.
It is my feeling that Orange Shirt Day shares the tone of Remembrance Day. It is a time for reflection on the colonial legacy that has done so much harm to the Indigenous nations who have lived here since time immemorial*. Orange Shirt Day is a time to acknowledge the current existing systems that are either negligent or outright harmful to Indigenous people, including but not limited to the incarceration system, the reserve system (and all that it entails: education, water services, etc.), and the child welfare system.
Some quick examples: Today, there is an immense overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the incarceration system.** There are more Indigenous children in foster care than there were at the height of residential school. And even though Indigenous children make up less than 8 percent of the child population in Canada, they account for more than half of children in the foster care system.
Why is this?
Orange Shirt Day is a time to reflect on this and many other inequities in this country.
There is one big difference between Remembrance Day and Orange Shirt Day. The first is to remember an immense loss that happened more than a century ago, and the latter acknowledges the loss of life that started more than a century ago and continues to this day.
Wearing an orange shirt on September 30th and throughout the year is a very small way that all Canadians can humbly acknowledge the impact of settler-colonialism as well as the need for meaningful change.
*side bar: check out this latest finding that scientifically dates Indigenous people walking on Turtle Island back to 23,000 years ago
**2nd side bar: check out Kim Senklip Harvey's documentary premiering this weekend, Break Horizons: A Rocking Indigenous Justice Ceremony