Friday, September 30, 2018 marks the fifth anniversary of Orange Shirt Day, a tradition that grew out of an annual recognition event held in Williams Lake, British Columbia. The purpose of the event is to commemorate the experience of Indigenous children sent to residential schools, the last of which closed in 1996, and to honour the survivors and their families as they heal. On September 28, Riverside Secondary will be one of the schools recognizing the day by encouraging students and teachers to wear orange shirts to show support for reconciliation.
From the end of the 19th century to the end of the 20th, over 150,000 First Nations children were sent to residential schools with the intent of assimilating them into the predominantly white European culture that English settlers were trying to establish in Canada. While learning how to read and speak English, many children lost the traditions that had been passed down through generations, and they left the schools, in the words of Chief Robert Joseph, “broken”. With the intent of providing an education came the forced abandonment of cultures that had thrived for thousands of years. Physical and sexual abuse allegations against those who operated the residential schools are plentiful, but the emotional and cultural harm is even more widespread. The mental impact of the schools is still being felt in Indigenous communities today: the suicide rate in First Nations communities is around six times the national average, and some have reported that up to 85% of residents have opiate addictions. Clearly, the importance of acknowledging the long-term effects of residential schools cannot be understated.
However, the impact of Orange Shirt Day expands beyond recognition: it can also serve as a learning opportunity. “It’s a chance to bring the history of Canada into focus for people who aren’t aware of the impact of residential schools and the legacy of them for intergenerational families,” said teacher Caroline Ross. Ross is at the forefront of introducing indigenous education to Riverside and expanding the perspective that students have on Canada, as much of First Nations history and experiences are not included in resources used in classrooms. “This is all of our histories, it’s not just indigenous history,” said Ross. “And our responsibility is to know what happened in the past and learn what we can do to move forward together in a positive and constructive way.”
Ross is not the only one trying to restore First Nation accounts to the Canadian narrative. Updated curriculums attempt to incorporate aboriginal traditions and history into education, and many official gatherings begin with acknowledgements of Indigenous territory. In recent years, the government has tried to reconcile with First Nations communities, including majorly funding reservations and offering tax concessions. This has sparked some controversy, as many people do not understand why the crimes of our forefathers must still be paid for by those who did not commit them. “There are people who say that Orange Shirt Day is not relevant to them, that they came from another country, that they don’t even know anyone Indigenous, that the past is the past. To those people I ask the question: ‘Does every child matter?’ If the answer is yes, then they should believe in reconciliation. It is about inclusivity, not guilt,” said April Kornitsky, a grade 12 student with Métis heritage.
“For me, reconciliation is overdue acceptance,” said Kornitsky. “It’s about having Indigenous people be acknowledged as a relevant minority, not as the ‘Indians of the past.’ In the end, it is about truth and respect.”
The writer of this article is not a member of the First Nations community, but prioritized respect and understanding while writing it. If there are any errors or insensitivity in the above article, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and we will rectify the issue as soon as possible.
Photo credit to Carey Newman in association with UVic.