How do we mark Orange Shirt Day this year?

On Thursday May 28, the chief of the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation, Rosanne Casimir, shared news that ground-penetrating radar had revealed the remains of 215 children at the Kamloops Indian Residential School.

In June, the House of Commons unanimously passed legislation to make September 30 a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. This day is to commemorate the history and ongoing trauma caused by residential schools and to honour the survivors, families and communities who continue to grieve for those who were lost.

To mark this, September 30 is now a public holiday, which honestly, I find really strange.

Since 2013, September 30 has been observed as Orange Shirt Day.

It was held at that time of the year because it was when government agents would take First Nations children from their families and force them into residential schools.

“Orange shirt day is a movement that officially began in 2013 but in reality it began in 1973 when six year old Phyllis Webstad entered the St. Joseph Mission Residential School, outside of Williams Lake, BC. Young Phyllis was wearing a brand new orange shirt for her first day of school – new clothes being a rare and wonderful thing for a First Nation girl growing up in her grandmother’s care – but the Mission Oblates quickly stripped her of her new shirt and replaced it with the school’s institutional uniform.

While she only attended for one year the impact affected Ms. Webstad’s life for many years. “I finally get it, that feeling of worthlessness and insignificance, ingrained in me from my first day at the mission, affected the way I lived my life for many years. Even now, when I know nothing could be further than the truth, I still sometimes feel that I don’t matter.””

For eight years, this movement has grown, and schools, workplaces, and communities have turned to acknowledge a heart-achey past, by wearing orange shirts. To see the solidarity expressed, to witness the acknowledgment of stories that were ignored, shushed, silenced, disbelieved, discredited, has been important. To turn collectively towards this history and try to process it, has been important. To see the work take place in schools, in workplaces, in communities, where people gather and form mixed communities, is important.

A public holiday in a pandemic feels like another excuse for us to retreat, to isolate, to all go our separate ways… when really, we need to find ways to walk through this history together.

I don’t really know how to put words to my feeling of suspicion or cynicism about this… that an important collective reckoning feels as though it’s been derailed, that a grassroots movement that was spreading organically has been overlaid with a top-down declaration that doesn’t come with any ceremony, any signals, any leadership or genuine action.

I’m really sad that the federal government has taken this day, to mark Truth and Reconciliation. I’m sorry that it took them five and half years, since the release of the Truth and Reconciliation report, to acknowledge this. I’m sorry it took ground-penetrating radar reports from residential schools across the country. I’m sorry it took all those children who didn’t get to go home to the people who loved them. I’m sorry for all the pain that so many people have been carrying alone. And I’m sorry that the government’s answer to this is a public holiday, and that this risks us all going out into the world our separate ways, instead of coming together in small or large ways, to witness, share, build energy, relate to each other.

So, I guess my question is: how do we mark Orange Shirt Day? How do we make this every day? How do we truly enter into an era of truth and reconciliation, beyond empty words and gestures.

Tell us your ideas.

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