Every Child Matters: The Origin of Orange Shirt Day

On September 30th many people across Canada (Turtle Island), wear bright orange t-shirts to honour and raise awareness of the thousands of Indigenous children who were sent to residential schools. Children were forced from their homes, endured horrific torture, subjected to deliberate suppression of their cultures and languages, and many never returned to their families. On Orange Shirt Day, we also remember the Survivors of these institutions and the long-standing effects on generations of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Peoples.

Have you ever wondered what the colour orange represents? Here are some facts about Orange Shirt Day and its origin:


Why an orange shirt?

When Phyllis Webstad was a little girl, she was forced to attend a residential school in Williams Lake, British Columbia. On the first day of school, she proudly wore an orange shirt her grandmother had given her. The residential school staff stripped her of her belongings, cut her hair, and took away her clothes, including her orange shirt

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! The color orange has always reminded   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.

Phyllis Webstad

Raising awareness about residential school systems in Canada.

Phyllis is one of the thousands of children between the ages of four to 16 who attended residential schools in Canada between the 1830s and 1996. The schools were operated by the Canadian government and church organizations with an aim to eliminate Indigenous People’s languages, cultures, and practices – a deliberate act of colonialism and assimilation.

Studies have shown that there was a 40-60% mortality rate in residential schools and most children suffered severe physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. Phyllis survived the residential school system, however many children never returned home. Those who did return to their families lived with unimaginable trauma because of their experiences.

Over the past few years, hundreds of unmarked graves of children have been found on former residential school sites across Canada. This discovery solidified what many Indigenous people have shared for years: stories of the horrendous treatment of children forced to attend residential schools.

The dark reminder

First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people continue to suffer from an intergenerational cycle of trauma due to Canada’s persistent failings and lack of action. Orange Shirt Day brings to light the effects of residential schools and honours the experiences of Indigenous Peoples.

While Orange Shirt Day is just one day in the year, we are strongly encouraged by many — including the Orange Shirt Society — that our commitment to Truth and Reconciliation is present year-round. We must continue to learn about, and take responsibility for, any action – or inaction – that contributed to the discrimination experienced by Indigenous children and people.

For true healing and reconciliation to occur, we cannot be silent. We must speak out and take action against rights violations while holding ourselves and others accountable.