Reflections on Orange Shirt Day (2019)

Please Note: 

This fieldnote speaks to the history of residential schools, the Sixties Scoop and Indian Day Schools. 

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Taking Stock

As I sat down to prepare this fieldnote, I found myself reflecting on the time that has passed since sharing my reflections last year. The release of a set of reports in December (from the OIPRD and Senator Murray Sinclair) on the critical need for reform of Thunder Bay’s police services. The unnecessary and illegal use of force at the Unist’ot’en Blockade in early January (which is ongoing). The release of the final report and accompanying Calls to Justice of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. A troubling reminder of the continued pervasiveness of racist actions and ideologies in our society, as demonstrated by recent revelations concerning canada's prime minister. And today, the release of a report in Quebec outlining the ways in which provincial laws, policies and practices have perpetuated systemic discrimination against Indigenous peoples in that province.

These reflections focus largely on the actions (and inactions) of colonial power structures, for what remains unchanging and unwavering year over year is the strength of Indigenous communities - as noted in a recent op-ed by Jody Wilson-Raybould “the work of reconciliation and nation rebuilding, for myself and for many other Indigenous leaders and people, has also meant telling the history of being resilient and standing firm in the face of colonization and oppression.”

This past year has also seen the finalization of two legal settlements for Sixties Scoop Survivors and for Survivors of Indian Day Schools, overdue acknowledgements of the continued harms of two systems of colonial violence. Like the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement (IRSSA) before them, these settlements highlight the multitude of ways in which these systems and policies sought to erase, marginalize and oppress Indigenous cultures and identities. And like this prior settlement, while they serve as a necessary recognition of their horrors, they do not erase the damage caused by these forms of "child-targeted assimilation" in Indigenous homes and communities: 

  • Indian Day Schools began operation in 1920, with close to 200,000 Indigenous children attending 699 such schools until their closure in the 1990s. While operated separately from residential schools (thus making Day School Survivors ineligible within the 2006 IRSSA), the federal government and religious institutions were also complicit in their damage, having been responsible for their operations and their oversight. Survivors note that their shared vision resulted in similar acts of physical, sexual, emotional and spiritual abuse, as well as a disconnection from language, culture and community. 

  • The Sixties Scoop represented a continuation of the residential school system policies, forcibly removing Indigenous children and placing them within the child welfare system. While the recent settlement covers cases through the 1980s, canada’s child welfare policies continue to disproportionately impact Indigenous communities - while Indigenous children are 7.7% of the child population in canada, 52.2% of children in care are Indigenous. 

On this Orange Shirt Day, we must acknowledge the toll these legal cases have taken upon Survivors over the past year. With the Sixties Scoop Foundation beginning to hold engagement sessions with Survivors and the process for Indian Day School settlement claims underway, we must also advocate for sustainably-sourced supports in the years ahead, and for the establishment of culturally safe spaces for sharing and healing. 

To Honour is to Act

The central message of Orange Shirt Day, which stems from the experience of Phyllis Webstad of the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation at the Mission residential school, is that every child matters

“The annual Orange Shirt Day on September 30th opens the door to global conversation on all aspects of Residential Schools. It is an opportunity to create meaningful discussion about the effects of Residential Schools and the legacy they have left behind.  A discussion all Canadians can tune into and create bridges with each other for reconciliation. A day for survivors to be reaffirmed that they matter, and so do those that have been affected. Every Child Matters, even if they are an adult, from now on.” 

- The Orange Shirt Society

This Orange Shirt Day, we must not, and cannot, lose the momentum of this work. To fully understand the history of this place we now call canada. To recognize the continued impacts of this history. And to honour Survivors. 

To honour is to act. To amplify Indigenous voices. To continue to identify those ways in which we can challenge our own forms of complicity within the colonial system. And to demand the necessary action and reforms from our elected officials (particularly within an election year). 

To mark Orange Shirt Day this year, I’ve made a contribution to the Orange Shirt Day Society (see below for how to support), and will be setting aside time to read another portion of “Reclaiming Power and Place” as part of my commitment to #ReadtheInquiry. 

How are you marking Orange Shirt Day this year? As I did last year, a few suggestions to share:

  • Read and reflect upon the life and leadership of Garry McLean - Elder, advocate and the lead plaintiff in the Indian Day Schools class-action suit. 

  • Support the Orange Shirt Society with a financial donation, which helps to support their ongoing education and advocacy efforts. 

  • Purchase a copy of “The Orange Shirt Story” to share the story with younger audiences. Teachers are encouraged to use the resources compiled by Orange Shirt Society to bring this critical dialogue into the classroom. 

  • Support Indigenous-led organizations supporting Survivors and elevating the leadership of Indigenous youth. 

  • With the demise of Bill C-369, continue to advocate to make September 30th a national statutory holiday to honour Survivors. 

  • Push federal election candidates to make tangible and meaningful commitments to eliminating systemic discrimination against Indigenous youth across governmental services and supports.