Why I’ll lay out an orange shirt for my 5 year old to wear on Friday


Orange Shirt Day, 2016

This photo from Orange Shirt Day at Signal Hill from 2016 choked me up when I first saw it – because is there anything more adorable than a pack of kindy kids, first graders and their bigger buddies? Because it makes me feel hopeful, that the future is in their hands, that they are learning the stories that will prevent dark histories from recurring. Because it signals a kind of solidarity to me… that every child takes the colour orange… because, as the song goes, none of us is free if one of us is chained.

But it chokes me up especially hard because it is a reminder that generations of indigenous people did not get to teach their children their own way, their own culture. Did not get to keep their children safe. Little kids. Just like these. Which is one of the most agonizing things, I think, as a parent… because my hard reckoning at the moment having just sent my son off to kindergarten, is that we simply can’t keep them safe by ourselves. At some point, way too early it feels, we have to send them into an uncertain world, and depend on the kindness of strangers, and depend on the kindness of people in authority, of the people who are, ostensibly, tasked, with taking care of them.

That all of the institutions – of school, of government – conspired against indigenous children and families, for 150 years, right up to the very recent past –  to do the opposite, is wrong. So wrong.

Instead of taking care of them, these caretakers, authorities and officials did harm.

What does an orange shirt on your back mean?

Orange Shirt Day is a legacy of the St. Joseph Mission residential school commemoration event held in Williams Lake, BC, Canada, in the spring of 2013.  It grew out of Phyllis’ story of having her shiny new orange shirt taken away on her first day of school at the Mission, and it has become an opportunity to keep the discussion on all aspects of residential schools happening annually.

For me, wearing an orange shirt means making a personal commitment to contribute my energy to ensuring that school is a safe place for every single child. For me, it means acknowledging the history of residential schools as a live, current and relevant thing – not as some past event. It means saying, I don’t have the answers, but I’m in. Count me in on this healing journey.

But how do I explain it to my five year old? How do I explain this to a kid who I’m not even sure is aware of what race is, or of there being a difference between being First Nations or not? To be perfectly honest, I don’t him to know about residential schools yet. I don’t want him to know about the Holocaust. Or the Rwandan genocide. I mean, I don’t even really like him knowing about Donald Trump.

But worse than bursting the protective bubble of his innocence, for me, is the idea that, through a combination of ignorance and privilege, he will grow up to be part of the problem. As my friend, Claire Fuller, said, when she shared the PUNPÚNTWAL documentary that arose out of Signal Hill Elementary’s powerful blanket ceremony in 2016:

“There are so many important messages in this documentary but today I heard ‘especially when history has a habit of repeating itself’. If we can give our children the tools to see immorality and inequality then the world really would become a better place.

Baby steps and an open heart. And a deep desire to be part of the solution, not part of the problem, in creating a kinder world. I will lean with gratitude on the work his school and teachers are doing, on the work that Phyllis did, on the work that survivors and indigenous leaders and teachers and cultural workers have done to recover, rebuild, to share their stories and try to teach us how much better we need to be, and I will sit with my own discomfort, and keep asking and answering questions as best I can.

(I’ll also wait with bated breath for Natalie Langmann’s post, on how she explains it to her kindergartener, because I’ve been taking notes from her previous explanations about Remembrance Day and the Terry Fox Run. As I am learning, we don’t have to have all the answers. We can lean on the amazing people around us.)

Webstad is so much more than a survivor. She is a teacher to us all, and she is now an author – through her courageous sharing, she is helping change the world.

Signal Hill and Pemberton Secondary School will both acknowledge Orange Shirt Day.

Explains the administration at Signal Hill: The date was chosen because it is the time of year in which children were taken from their homes to residential schools, and because it is an opportunity to set the stage for anti-racism and anti-bullying policies for the coming school year.  It also gives teachers time to plan events that will include children, to ensure that we are passing the story and learning on to the next generations.

The Village of Pemberton and the SLRD have also proclaimed Orange Shirt Day.

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WHEREAS the Truth and Reconciliation summary report calls for a national day to honour residential school survivors, their families and communities, and ensure that public commemoration of the history and legacy of residential schools remains a vital component of the reconciliation process, and;

WHEREAS the orange shirt has become a symbol of remembrance for residential school survivors;

NOW THEREFORE on behalf of Council, I, Mike Richman, Mayor of the Village of Pemberton, do hereby proclaim September 30th as “Orange Shirt Day” in the Village of Pemberton.

The purpose of Orange Shirt Day is to to acknowledge the traumatic effects of residential schools, and to support the ongoing process of reconciliation, as a community.

We are the institutions, the organizations and the community members who are tasked with this ongoing work – of saying no more, never again, and of being the kindness we need to see in the world, for our own children.

May it begin with an orange shirt. And grow into an unstoppable wave of love, that lifts everyone up, and forward.

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