Updated: Oct 14, 2019
September 30th has been declared Orange Shirt Day annually, in recognition of the harm the residential school system did to children's sense of self-esteem and well being, and as an affirmation of our commitment to ensure that everyone around us matters. We recognize this event as part of our lessons on social-emotional learning, BC's core competencies, and the inclusion of aboriginal perspectives and history.
The commemorative day was sparked in 2013 by Phyllis Jack Webstad, a Stswecem'c Xgat'tem First Nation Elder in Williams Lake. Back in 1973, six-year-old Phyllis was excited to wear the brand-new orange shirt her Grandma bought for her first day of school. But here’s what happened:
“When I got to the Mission, they stripped me, and took away my clothes, including the orange shirt! I never wore it again. I didn’t understand why they wouldn’t give it back to me, it was mine!” Phyllis recalled in a post on the Orange Shirt Day website. “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.”
Since Phyllis first shared her story, Orange Shirt Day has spread across Canada and has been incorporated into curriculum and school events annually. Senator Murray Sinclair, former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, told the CBC that he hopes “that Orange Shirt Day will encourage teachers to remember every student who crosses their doorstep is someone’s child, and that every child matters.”
At Newbridge Academy, teachers and students used books to discuss and think about the themes raised by Orange Shirt Day. They read Shi-Shi-Etko, a story about a girl’s last days at home before leaving for residential school, When I Was Eight, a story of a child’s determination even when faced with difficulties, and Phyllis’s Orange Shirt, the story that lead to this day.
For orange shirt day, the Kindergarten teacher read the Shi-shi-etko book a couple times to the children, and they discussed its relevance to orange shirt day. The Kindergarteners then drew in items that they thought were important for them to have in their own memory bags if they had to leave home and could only bring a few items with them.
The grade 1's did an activity where they had to write in sentences about what their home means to them (what their home smells, tastes like, looks like, feels like, sounds like.) This was relevant to the story because Shi-shi-etko wanted to remember everything around her home land, as she would be leaving soon to go to the residential school. Making connections to books is part of reading strategies used to understand and think about what has been read.
The grade 2 teacher shared a question that one student, Noah asked. "After we read Shi-Shi Etko and talked about the residential schools, he asked, 'Why do we have a special day to celebrate the girl with the orange t-shirt when there were so many other children who also went to the residential schools?'" This was an insightful comment that lead to further discussion.
The grade 4 class began preparation for Orange Shirt Day by reading and discussing the books Shi-shi-etko, and The Orange Shirt. They talked about the similarities and differences between the experiences and the feelings one might have if they were the ones going to a new environment far from family. They wrote comparisons between the people in Shi-shi-etko's family who taught her things before she went to school and the people in each Grade 4 student's family (life) who taught them things. The teacher reports “We've been talking about kindness and speaking kind words, appreciations which contribute to healthier relationships. Although bullying is part of society today, we are focused on building positive communication and relationships.”