Reflections on Orange Shirt Day

A crispness in the air on my morning commute is a marker of the shifting seasons, the lull of summer being replaced by the familiar pull of a month so associated with the start of another academic year. Far from university lecture halls, I find myself reflective amidst the autumn leaves to a time of personal growth, discovery and change. Yet I am also acutely aware that these feelings are a marker of privilege — that the freedom of expression, sense of stability and security and support afforded to me in these spaces stands in such stark contrast to the experiences of the more than 150,000 Indigenous students who passed through the halls of this country’s residential schools. 

With the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s final report in 2015, the longstanding and continuing impacts of this cultural genocide were documented, an undertaking that would not have been possible without more than 6,750 Survivors and family members speaking their truths. As noted in this final report: 

It is due to the courage and determination of former students — the Survivors of Canada’s residential school system — that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada was established. They worked for decades to place the issue of the abusive treatment that students were subjected to at residential schools on the national agenda. Their perseverance led to the reaching of the historic Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. All Canadians must now demonstrate the same level of courage and determination, as we commit to an ongoing process of reconciliation.

It is now 2018 — three years since the release of this report and the calls for meaningful action that were included in its pages. In this time, I have witnessed incredible moments of transformation, from large-scale acts to intimate moments of personal transformation. But I am also acutely aware of how much must still be done to honour the strength and resiliency of Survivors, who have entrusted us with the opportunity to shift our course and craft a more just and equitable world for future generations. 

 Photo Credit: Province of British Columbia

Photo Credit: Province of British Columbia

We must honour the strength and resiliency of Survivors, who have entrusted us with the opportunity to shift our course and craft a more just and equitable world for future generations. 

To do so will require us to reckon fully with the history of this country. In a week in which we debate the use of “unparliamentary language” in the House of Commons, we cannot forget the stinging words of John A. MacDonald to the House of Commons in 1883, included in the final report of the TRC:

When the school is on the reserve the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write his habits, and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly pressed on myself, as the head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.

As we reflect upon this history, we must also reckon fully with the ways in which this country continues to fail Indigenous youth. There are now more Indigenous children in foster care than at the height of the residential school system. The federal government has responded to the Jordan’s Principle (which found an underfunding of child welfare services on reserve) only after three non-compliance orders from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal and more than $800,000 in legal costs spent fighting the case. And as a new school year starts, youth of Kashechewan First Nation have been on Parliament Hill rather than in the classroom, following the declaration of a state of emergency by Chief Leo Friday due to the poor condition of the school infrastructure. We can and we must do better — it is not a shortage of ambition, resiliency or ingenuity on behalf of Indigenous youth that have produced these realities.

Reconciliation begins with you

We all have a role to play in crafting a new path forward. Orange Shirt Day, taking place this Sunday, provides space for each of us to reflect upon the actions we can take in our own lives in pursuit of the potential that lies before us. Occurring annually on September 30, Orange Shirt Day stems from the experience of Phyllis Webstad of the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation at the Mission residential school:

This Sunday I will be revisiting the work of Thomas King (whose work “The Inconvenient Indian” was recently re-released as an illustrated edition), listening to the music of Polaris-prize winning Jeremy Dutcher and reflecting upon the words and teachings of Chief Dr. Robert Joseph as I begin preparations for the second RavenSPEAK event taking place later this year. Initiatives such as this are elevating and amplifying Indigenous voices, a critical step in our collective reconciliation journey.

What does Orange Shirt Day mean to you? And how will you honour Survivors this weekend?

For those new to the space, here are some suggested first steps:

Alexander Dirksen