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Understanding the Power of Our Stories Beyond Orange Shirt Day

A respected Indigenous colleague wrote on his social media feed that he was “anxiety-ridden in anticipation of all of the acts of reconciliation that were to come in the days ahead.” I have been thinking about this idea a lot this week. I have been reconnecting with Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal friends and family, trying to make sense of the emotions tied to the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. Re-traumatization, guilt, anger, sorrow, frustration, happiness and emptiness, those are my gleanings. We are mutually in a state of question…is this emotion okay to feel? Orange Shirt Day, Every Child Matters, Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls, TRC Calls to Action and Indigenization projects are all meant to remind us of a transformation in the stories told, but there is no roadmap on how to feel or the actions that might help. 

Here is what I know as an Indigenous person, a great observer of society, and someone constantly practicing being a good human: take the time to study and listen, observe your natural instincts to help, and give yourself a break. It is impossible to keep up with all learning and helping opportunities in this pressured first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. As an ally, Aboriginal person, or someone just trying to get through the week, the pressure to outwardly act immediately is anxiety-inducing. When am I supposed to wear orange? Why I am supposed to wear orange? What are the implications of not wearing orange? The dogmatic approach to these markers in our collective history seems to be creating negative spaces. As all people fear not doing enough, I fear people will become over-doers, which feeds the rightful concern to assuage our guilt on just one day, and promptly forget. Not through lack of caring or desire to make a difference, but rather a lack of direction for ongoing and meaningful change. In my practice as a teacher, I like to share a lesson taught to me by many of my Elders: always look for the origin story and start with the simple lessons they share. These beginnings are where sense-making happens. 

Designated National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, Sept. 30 is also recognized as Orange Shirt Day. I would like to start with these two simple stories that can change minds and actions.

In 1973, when six-year-old Phyllis Webstad was starting her first day at St. Joseph Mission Residential School, she was wearing an orange shirt given to her by her grandmother. It was a fabulous orange shirt, and she was very proud. As was the practice with the schools, all personal possessions were taken from her upon her arrival at the school. In many cases, hair was cut, along with connections to family, language and territory. School uniforms were supplied to create integration and uniformity. It was believed that all connections to their homes must be severed for these children to facilitate their transition to school life. Kids as young as four were forced to give up their clothes, language, culture and family.

In 2013, Phyllis Webstad and Chief Fred Robbins (another survivor of St. Joseph Mission School) began Orange Shirt Day to tell a simple story that could change minds and actions in the treatment of Aboriginal people in Canada. The story of Phyllis Webstad and her orange shirt is a beacon for the approximately 150,000 children who attended these schools, and their descendants. At its core, Phyllisstory represents the breaking of trust that all residential school survivors have endured. 

But, not all children who attended a residential school survived. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission Final Report estimated there to be 3,200 unmarked graves of children who died at the schools through sickness, neglect, abuse and suicide. The commission asked for more time and resources to expand the scope of their work to investigate the stories of these lost children.  Their request was denied. In the end, the TRC documented the deaths of more than 6,000 residential school students.

On May 27, 2021, the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc Nation announced the discovery of the remains of 215 children at the Kamloops Residential School site. Canadians spoke out. For a moment, we all seemed to understand the scope of Phylliss story and beyond. The immediate emotional action; the laying out of childrens shoes in front of churches kept those lost childrens story in focus. But the horror of the image faded with the shoes. What then? A rising national demand to assist in surveying the unmarked graves. With limited government support, there are currently 18 active investigations in what may be hundreds of unmarked graves across the country. It is painful to talk about. Maybe this is why we hesitate until the appointed day when we are told we should learn, reflect and reconcile. In that one day or week we forced out everything we held in. And it becomes too much: too many events, too many calls, too much sorrow and guilt. 

So here is what you can do. We all agree Every Child Matters. So, tell their stories. Share the stories with your children, grandchildren, friends and families. No one is too young or too old to know the truth. To reconcile our collective stories of Canada, we must acknowledge these stories as truth all year and add their voices to the story we tell as Canadians. There are a lot of meaningful efforts for this day, and I hope that you find one that resonates for you. One friend and colleague, who happens to be non-Aboriginal, sent an email stating they were donating their earnings for this paid holiday to an Indigenous student scholarship and challenged everyone in their organization to do the same. Actions like this will have an echoing effect throughout the year.

Ultimately, I urge you to never stop pressing for more stories of the lost children in unmarked graves. Never stop telling the story of Phyllis and her orange shirt. These stories are our Truths.


Don McIntyre

Don is a member of Parkland Institute's board of directors and an assistant professor at the Dhillon Business School in the Faculty of Management at the University of Lethbridge. He holds a bachelor and master of laws from UBC Law School and is ABD on his PhD in laws looking at legal pluralism, property, and how Indigenous trans-systemics can enhance and improve Western legal paradigms. Don’s parents are Scottish and Algonquin, and he has spent much of his life working to reconcile the position of Aboriginal populations in Canada.

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