Students across the York Region District School Board (YRDSB) took part in Orange Shirt Day and will host other events to honour the bravery and resiliency of residential school survivors.
“At YRDSB, we are championing equity and inclusivity to build a collective understanding of the ongoing impact of colonialism on Indigenous communities,” Director of Education Louise Sirisko says in a statement. “By recognizing Orange Shirt Day, we hope to engage in meaningful discussions and contribute to the process of reconciliation.”
Orange Shirt Day is held annually on Sept. 30. It’s the legacy of the St. Joseph Mission residential school commemoration event held in Williams Lake, B.C. in 2013. It grew out the story of Phyllis (Jack) Webstad, who was just six years old when she was taken to the school in 1973.
“I lived with my grandmother on the Dog Creek reserve,” she recalls on the Orange Shirt Day website. “We never had very much money but somehow my granny managed to buy me a new outfit to go to the Mission school. I remember going to Robinson’s store and picking out a shiny orange shirt. It had string laced up in front, and was so bright and exciting – just like I felt to be going to school.”
But when she arrived at the Mission, she was stripped of her clothes, including her orange shirt. “I never wore it again. I didn’t understand why they wouldn’t give it back to me; it was mine! The colour orange has always reminded me of that and how my feelings didn’t matter, how no one cared and how I felt like I was worth nothing. All of us little children were crying and no one cared.”
Orange Shirt Day has become an opportunity to keep the discussion on all aspects of residential schools happening annually. “As educators we have a responsibility to teach and acknowledge the truth of our collective history and address the Truth & Reconciliation Calls to Action,” says Towana Brooks, YRDSB’s Curriculum Advisor – First Nations, Métis and Inuit Education. “Honouring Orange Shirt Day through action and truth leads us one step closer to reconciliation.”
Schools throughout YRDSB are taking part in inquiry projects, activities and assemblies and hosting guest speakers in the spirit of reconciliation and to build on student understanding of colonialism and the impact of residential schools.
Students at Beckett Farm P.S., for example, will hear from Mohawk Institute residential school survivor, Karen Hill, and descendent of residential school survivor, Claudine Van Every-Albert. Residential school survivors will share their experiences and knowledge about traditional medicine with students at Buttonville P.S.
At Mackenzie Glen P.S., students will raise awareness of the effects of the residential school system by creating a collaborative school display learning about the story of Phyllis Webstad and by fundraising for the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjak Fund. Sharon P.S. students will take part in a Blanket Activity to learn more about the impact of colonization and residential schools.
Lakeside Public School students in Keswick marked Orange Shirt Day on Sept. 28 and will take part in a year-long school-wide inquiry project on what land means to them. Photos courtesy of the York Region District School Board.