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Check out the story behind the orange shirt

Tansi Nîtôtemtik,

In 2014 the Assembly of First Nations Chiefs-in-Assembly declared September 30 Orange Shirt Day. The orange shirt is a symbol of the physical and emotional harms that children in residential schools were subjected to. The shirt is also worn in remembrance of all those children who never made it back to their communities from which they were taken.

In 1920, the Department of Indian Affairs, led by Duncan Scott (Deputy Minister) amended the Indian Act which made it mandatory for Indigenous children to attend residential schools. [1] The Department had the legal power to remove children from their communities and place them in distant residential schools far away from their families. [2] The government’s deliberate policies of underfunding residential schools led to overcrowding of third-rate facilities, poor sanitary conditions, neglected medical attention, and poor nutrition. [3] Many children perished and were silently buried.

Today I want to highlight the powerful story that started the orange shirt movement. Phyllis (Jack) Webstad is the Founder and Ambassador of the Orange Shirt Society. She is from Dog Creek reserve (Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation) and is a residential school survivor. [4] Her story took 40 years to share publicly but it has made a national impact. This is Phyllis’ story in her own words:

“I went to the Mission for one school year in 1973/1974. I had just turned 6 years old. I lived with my grandmother on the Dog Creek reserve. We never had very much money, but somehow my granny managed to buy me a new outfit to go to the Mission school. I remember going to Robinson’s store and picking out a shiny orange shirt. It had string laced up in front, and was so bright and exciting – just like I felt to be going to school!

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 me of that 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.”[5]

I hope that you will join us in wearing orange on September 30th- but a quick note on the shirt that you may want to purchase. It matters where you buy your orange shirt because the proceeds need to go back to the Indigenous communities that created the shirt. [6] I have already seen ads pop up on social media of companies trying to cash in on the orange shirt movement. You can buy an “Every Child Matters” shirt on Amazon, but the proceeds are not going back to the communities that need it. Make sure to ask and do your research! If you are unable to purchase a shirt created by an Indigenous artist, you can always donate to local Indigenous-led initiatives. [7]

I purchased my shirt from the University of Alberta bookstore. It was designed by Artist-in-Residence Jerry Whitehead and all the proceeds from the sales of the U of A Orange Shirts & Hoodies goes back to the First Peoples' House to fund Cultural Programming. I have made a personal commitment to wear this shirt more than once a year to keep the message alive and I would encourage others to join me.

For all the children that did not survive, we wear orange. For all those that managed to walk out alive but with physical and emotional scars, we wear orange. For all the parents whose children lay in an unmarked grave and were never notified, we wear orange. For all the children who were taught to be ashamed of themselves, we wear orange. For all the children who cried tears of injustice, we wear orange. For the government’s blatant disregard in honouring their treaty obligations, we wear orange.

Until next time,

Team ReconciliAction YEG

[1] Shuana Niessen, “Shattering The Silence: The Hidden History of Indian Residential Schools in Saskatchewan” (2017) at 35, online: Faculty of Education, University of Regina <>.

[2] Charlie Angus, Children of the Broken Treaty: Canada’s lost promise and one girl’s dream (Regina: University of Regina Press, 2017) at 14.

[3] Erin Hanson, Daniel P. Gamez & Alexa Manuel, “The Residential School System” (September 2020), online: Indigenous Foundations <>.

[4] ”Phyllis (Jack) Webstad’s story in her own words…” (last visited 23 Sept 2022), online: The Orange Shirt Society <>.

[5] Ibid.

[6] CBC News, “Where you buy your orange shirt matters-here’s why” (19 September 2022), online: CBC News Calgary <>.

[7] Ibid.

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