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Orange Shirt Day returns to Queen’s

An orange shirt made of paper, similar to the one that was taken from Phyllis Webstad, which the ATEP students made to mark Orange Shirt Day. (Supplied Photo)
An orange shirt made of paper, similar to the one that was taken from Phyllis Webstad, which students made to mark Orange Shirt Day. (Supplied Photo)

Phyllis Webstad was just six years old, living on a reserve in British Columbia, when she was sent to a residential school for a year. Phyllis and her mother bought a brand new orange shirt for Phyllis to wear to her first day of school. On Phyllis’ first day at St. Joseph Mission, that brand new orange shirt was taken away from her. She would never see the shirt again, and it would come to symbolize the feelings of worthlessness and insignificance that the school instilled in her and all of its students.

Ms. Webstad survived the school and, some 40 years later, shared her story as part of a commemoration that marked the legacy of St. Joseph Mission in Williams Lake, B.C. From that story came a new initiative marking the legacy of residential schools in Canada – Orange Shirt Day. With a tagline of “Every Child Matters”, the day of remembrance has now spread across the country and a class of Aboriginal Teacher Education Program teacher candidates along with First Nation, Metis & Inuit Studies students have once again brought the event to Queen’s and to Kingston.

“The purpose of the event is to honour all of the children who attended Residential schools, both the survivors and those who did not,” says teacher candidate Krista McNamara, one of the organizers of Orange Shirt Day at Queen’s. “While the final Residential school closed in 1996, the trauma from the system has not ceased to impact our respective communities. We hope our fellow teacher candidates will take this opportunity to extend on their learning, and seek to learn about the ways in which our respective communities educated ourselves before residential school, during the residential school era, and the ways in which we are educating ourselves now.”

Two students staff the Orange Shirt Day booth in Duncan McArthur Hall. (Supplied Photo)
Two students staff the Orange Shirt Day booth in Duncan McArthur Hall. (Supplied Photo)

Ms. McNamara and her classmates set out to spark a dialogue and reflect on the legacy of those schools. On Thursday, the class set up a table in the student street of Duncan McArthur Hall and booked a screening of the film “We Were Children” for the afternoon.

“I have family on both sides that attended residential school and my family still has lasting intergenerational affects from the system so I have been aware of this history my whole life,” says Dawn Martin, another organizer and teacher candidate. “My mother has been very vocal about the abuses she has faced from the intergenerational trauma and I have been trying to address and educate people on this subject for some time. I think the conversation of reconciliation is an important topic, and addressing Indigenous history and the Indigenous experience needs to be a part of mainstream Canadian history.”

The formal date of Orange Shirt Day is September 30, and it is set to coincide with the approximate date when Indigenous children would be taken from their families to attend residential schools. To learn more about Orange Shirt Day, visit the initiative’s website.