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Orange Shirt Day: Building Understanding and Awareness

Every year teachers, staff and students honour an important day in our District and throughout Canada: Orange Shirt Day, which is on September 30. It’s one of the visible ways in which our District strives to highlight our shared history in Canada, as well as a way to honour those who attended residential schools and reinforce that every child matters.

In other years, schools hold assemblies and offer teachings to promote understanding and reflection. This year with restrictions on gathering sizes due to COVID-19, recognition of the day will look a little different. Some schools are holding assemblies through video conferencing and others are joining larger online events.

The Indigenous Education team at the District has also shared ways our school communities can honour the day, suggestions for classroom activities, as well as resources about the history of residential schools, the healing journey of survivors and their families, and how the day came about. It originated as a way to honour “Phyllis’ story.” As a young girl, Phyllis had her orange shirt taken away on her first day at a residential school in Mission, BC.

Rob Smyth is the District Principal of Indigenous Education. He notes that the shirt has now come to also represent culture and tradition being taken away, as well as youth being forcibly removed from their homes. Smyth notes that this year may be especially hard for people because of the complex and devastating history that pandemics have had on many Indigenous communities.

For a lot of our families the trauma of residential schools is revisited – especially in September, and that is intensified this year by the pandemic. There are things that are a direct reminder of the past, such as not being able to enter the school. As a District – and especially in my role – we want families to know that we are listening and working together with schools to build an understanding. It’s something that is important for us to pay attention to and acknowledge.”

Smyth notes that Orange Shirt Day also presents an opportunity for our school communities. It is a way to ground the start of the school year in our shared history and develop a common understanding, as we move forward together in our ongoing journey of reconciliation.

To learn more about the local legacy of residential schools, please see the following video, for which we are grateful to Swalklanexw, Dallas Guss and Tsnomot, as well as Brad Baker from the Squamish Nation for sharing it.


Posted September 2020