Gathered in a big circle in front of Old Main, Indigenous and non-Indigenous people gathered to sing, dance and remember those who have suffered and acknowledge those who are in the process of healing.
Orange Shirt Day is an annual event brought to fruition by Phyllis Webstad, a TRU alumni who attended St. Joseph’s Residential School in Williams Lake starting at the age of six.
“She had her orange shirt given to her by her grandmother,” said Paul Michel, Aboriginal education director at TRU. “She vividly remembers that it was removed from her at this residential school and she never saw it again.”
Alan Shaver, TRU president, said the removal of her orange shirt was a truly symbolic moment.
“I think we can all relate to the anxiety and the nervousness of going to the first day of school. Rather than being an exciting or stimulating experience, her first day of school was a nightmare. Taking away everything that she stood for, everything that she had learned,” Shaver said.
The memory of her time at the residential school never escaped Webstad, who, as an adult, started to share her story.
“She was immersed in the nightmare that was residential school, but she was strong, she persisted, she was resilient. She didn’t forget how she felt when she was six years old and she knew that was wrong and so she told her story,” Shaver said.
Every year Webstad would wear an orange shirt during the back-to-school season as a reminder of her experiences as a youth.
“It started small in the Williams Lake area, but people started hearing her story and it marked a memory for the Indigenous peoples of Canada that are still trying survive the period of time that they were sent to residential schools,” Michel said. “The orange shirts remind us of the historic trauma, the colonization and racism associated with residential schools.”
Michel says that although Orange Shirt Day is about understanding and education of what happened in the past, it is also a reminder that we must look towards the future.
“We need to reconcile and heal,” Michel said.
Michel added that it’s important for Orange Shirt Day to be about celebration because it creates a safe space for not only Indigenous people but other minority groups.
“We don’t always have that type of environment, so it’s a reminder for all people that we must work in unity and balance,” Michel said.
Orange Shirt Day aims to bring awareness to Aboriginal youth and residential school survivors and is celebrated annually on Sept. 30.
“We are on the first steps in the path to reconciliation but we have a long, long way to go,” Shaver said.
Photos Juan Cabrejo/The Omega