The story of the orange t-shirt in Canada begins – but does not end – with Phyllis Webstad. 

Phyllis was born on Dog Creek Reserve and is from the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation. Her family didn’t have much money, but her grandmother managed to buy her new clothing for school. Phyllis carefully chose an orange t-shirt. 

Her orange t-shirt was particularly meaningful because it was gifted from her grandmother – the woman who was raising her. It represented family, home, love, trust, respect, safety, and security… All the things we need and crave as human beings.  

In 1973, Phyllis entered the residential school system at the age of 6 – “a 300 day sleepover” as she describes it but there, on that first day, she was stripped of all her possessions – including her orange t-shirt and with it, her sense of self-worth.  

It was the beginning (and the continuation) of a process that violated children and families, and robbed them of the fundamentals of life.  

Over 130 federally funded and church-run residentials schools across Canada were attended by more than 150,000 Indigenous children who were “scooped” from their homes and families.  

The goal, as expressed by Canada’s then first prime minister was to “take the Indian out of the child”, and thus began the deliberate process of forced assimilation and cultural genocide that created nothing short of intergenerational trauma amongst Indigenous Peoples.

Fast forward, Phyllis – the grown woman – tells us that,

 “…the feeling of worthlessness and insignificance, ingrained in me from my very first day at school affected the way I lived my life for many years… The losses of family, culture, freedom, parenting, self-esteem, and worth were experienced by everyone.”

Many children died of illness, lack of care and worse, negligence and abuse (physical, psychological, emotional and sexual); and we are now uncovering countless unmarked graves. 

Those who did survive, returned to their home communities without the knowledge, tools or skills to cope in either world. The impacts of their institutionalization in residential school continue to be felt by subsequent generations. 

Maggie Hodgson, in Impact of Residential Schools and Other Root Causes of Poor Mental Health, summarizes the cumulative impact of the loss of parenting knowledge and skills across generations like this:

“If you subject one generation to that kind of parenting and they become adults and have children; those children become subjected to that treatment and then you subject a third generation to a residential school system, the same as the first two generations.

You have a whole society affected by isolation, loneliness, sadness, anger, hopelessness, and pain.”

And so, why the orange t-shirt? It is anchored in Phyllis’ story. It is a symbol of the devastation and trauma experienced by Indigenous children, their families and communities. It is also a powerful reminder that every child matters.

I have said it here before. To be whole, our country needs truth and reconciliation – real and meaningful reconciliation. 

RECONCILIATION means recognizing how Indigenous Peoples have been traumatically and systemically harmed and disadvantaged on so many levels through intergenerational cycles – cycles that persist to this day. 

RECONCILIATION is about acknowledging on a grand scale the devastation caused by Canada as a colonizing nation. It is about apologizing and taking the necessary steps to redress past transgressions and establish a respectful relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.

RECONCILIATION is a collective endeavour, a collective responsibility. It means recognizing what Indigenous Peoples across the country have had to endure and what they have lost – and what they continue to endure to this day. 

RECONCILIATION is also an individual responsibility. Learn, grow and understand with an open mind and an open heart, compassion and empathy.

What will you do today, on this first annual Truth and Reconciliation Day?

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