Commemorating the Thousands of Lives Claimed by Canada’s Indian Residential School System

This September 30 marks the second time that the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, also known as Orange Shirt Day, has been observed in Canada as a public holiday. The “orange shirt” component of the celebration was inspired by the story of Phyllis Webstad, a residential school survivor. The day itself serves to raise awareness of the colonial violence faced by Indigenous children and communities throughout Canada’s history.

On her first day at St. Joseph’s boarding school in Williams Lake, British Columbia, Webstad, then six, was stripped of her orange shirt that her grandmother had given her. On September 30, 2013, Webstad shared His experience publicly and reflectively on the intergenerational impacts of Canada’s residential school system on Indigenous children, families, communities, language and culture. “The color orange always reminded me of that and how my feeling didn’t matter, how nobody cared and how I felt like I was worthless,” Webstad said.

Residential schools were established to culturally assimilate Indigenous peoples. The children were separated from their families, after which they slowly lost contact with their language and culture. To make matters worse, thousands of Indigenous children were physically and sexually abused in these schools, some of whom did not survive.

In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada reports 3,200 deaths in residential schools. The victims were buried in unmarked graves and the remains of many remain undocumented.

The U of T invites all students, staff, faculty and all Canadians not just to wear orange, but to listen to the experiences of survivors, to mourn those lost or murdered and to participate in reconciliation during of Orange Shirt Day. Various events and activities are planned to celebrate Orange Shirt Day.

U of T’s Varsity Stadium has already raised the “Every Child Matters” flag before Orange Shirt Day.

From 10:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. on September 30, U of T’s Hart House will host a symposium featuring Andrew Wesley, former Elder-in-Residence at First Nations House, as keynote speaker. UTM Director Alexandra Gillespie and University of Toronto Vice President, People Strategy, Equity and Culture Kelly Hannah-Moffat will both address the community at the conference. Registration is mandatory.

The Canadian government will also broadcast a one-hour program memorial rally to honor residential school survivors.

It is important that participants have the appropriate mindset when participating in Orange Shirt Day events. “If anyone deserves a day of remembrance, it’s the thousands of children who have been abused, forgotten and unceremoniously buried in unmarked graves. This National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is about acknowledging Canada’s true history and asking, what does reconciliation mean? Better to ask what we can do to right these wrongs,” says Brenda WastasecootAssistant Professor at the Center for Native Studies at the U of T.

Peering beneath the glamorous surface of our contemporary society, stories of tragic events depict the inhumane treatment Indigenous children have suffered in Canadian history. As a pursuer of higher education, it is important for U of T students to commemorate the victims of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools, who were children whose lives were lost using the name of education.

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