The following reading includes a discussion of the harsh treatment experienced by Indigenous children, and families affected by residential schools. We encourage those who have been affected by these tragedies to emotionally prepare before continuing reading, if you believe that the reading will be traumatizing for you, then you may choose to forgo it.
Orange Shirt Day is a day to honour the survivors of Residential School and takes place every year on September 30th. The orange shirt comes from a survivor named Phyllis Webstad who had her orange shirt taken from her on her first day attending residential school, which is now the symbol used by many Canadians on this day to stand in solidarity with Indigenous survivors.
Canada’s residential school system was introduced in the late 1800’s to acculturate the Indigenous people into the European way of life. It was assumed then that their way of life was far superior. Europeans failed to see the rich and vibrant culture that was in place before their arrival. There were laws, political structures, strong economies, family structures, trade routes, spiritual practices, all the hallmarks of a functioning society in place already. They were in place for tens of thousands of years before First Contact.
The residential school system brought all of that down in less than 100 years. Parents were given 2 choices: Willingly send their children to school, or be put in jail and their children be taken anyway. Once at school children were stripped of their identities: their hair was cut, their clothes taken and they were all given numbers instead of names. When on speaking engagements today, survivors often introduce themselves by their number first.
The schools were funded by the Canadian government and run by various church entities so were staffed by priests and nuns. Many survivors report a plethora of abuse at the hands of the priests and nuns: spiritual, physical, mental, emotional, and sexual abuse. There are reports that the physical abuse leading to the children being murdered. There are reports of the sexual abuse leading to pregnancies of children. There are reports of children going missing in the middle of night. There are reports of children being forced to dig holes in the middle of the night far from school grounds.
Evidence of these claims are being discovered today by ground penetrating radar. To date, only 1% of Residential School grounds have been searched, but the number of unmarked graves is over 10’000.
Residential schools aren’t ancient history. The last one closed in 1996.
For all intents and purposes, the residential school system failed. The buildings lay empty and crumbling, if they haven’t been destroyed yet, languages are being transmitted to new generations, and we have rebuilt the systems that were in place before First Contact.
My name is Damian, and I am a first generation residential school survivor. My grandmother and mother both attended residential school. I very well could have as well. Every year I wear my orange shirt to honour my family who survived Canada’s residential school system.
The National Indian Residential School Crisis Line provides 24-hour crisis support to former Indian Residential School students and their families toll-free at 1-866-925-4419.