What is the history of Orange Shirt Day?

Students at Orange Shirt Day 2020

In 1891, St. Joseph Mission Residential School became operational in Williams Lake, BC. Hundreds of children spent many years of their young lives residing within the walls of this institution until it closed its doors in 1981.

22 years later, a man named Chief Fred Robbins organized an event for a project in commemoration of the impact of this Residential School. His vision was to bring together Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to learn from individual experience. He says “there needs to be a teaching [because] people are starting to realize that we, as First Nations, are still recovering. We need to start a curriculum that will work to educate the next generation.”1 His efforts towards change and new relationship encourage the centering of Indigenous voices in our reconciliation efforts.

To this purpose, Phyllis Webstad, a survivor of this Residential School, told her story as a spokesperson for the event in Williams Lake in 2013. She was admitted to St. Joseph Mission Residential School at 6 years old as a third-generation attendee. Her Granny had allowed her to choose a new outfit for the first day of school, and she chose a shiny new orange shirt. Upon arrival, it was stripped from her and she never saw it again. She says “we didn’t matter”2 in her 300 sleeps that she stayed there.

Webstad speaks on the significance of having such an event as this, saying “today is a day for survivors to tell their stories and for us to listen with open hearts… we don’t talk about it at home… Now maybe with this, we can start telling more of our stories [be]cause [my family] didn’t even know about my orange shirt story.”3

Orange Shirt Day now stands as a legacy of the St. Joseph Mission Residential School commemoration project and reunion efforts. It keeps a meaningful, global conversation going about the survivors and those lost to the Residential schools, as well as demonstrates a commitment to ensuring that individual lives and stories matter.4 The last Indian Residential School closed in 1996; this is not a long time ago. It is everyone’s responsibility now to walk this journey of awareness about the intergenerational impacts of Indian Residential Schools and promotion of truth, reconciliation, and remembering.

Why is Orange Shirt Day important for Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities?

Orange Shirt Day on StMU Campus

Part of reconciliation with our Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities includes centering Indigenous voices and perspectives. Michelle Scott is the Director of Indigenous Initiatives at St. Mary’s University. She has been a part of the St. Mary’s community since May 2014, and her roles include supporting student learners in their awareness of Indigenous voices and history, as well as integrating Indigenous ways of knowing, Indigenous content, and other initiatives into the framework of all facets of the University. She brings in elders and knowledge keepers for events throughout the year, and also hosts educational opportunities for Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, staff and faculty.

When asked about the importance of Orange Shirt Day, Scott brought up the truth and reconciliation commission. She says “‘in truth’ means we need to tell the stories about the history of Canada, and one of them is Residential Schools… [This involves] learning about the Residential School system and why it was created as an assimilative policy: to ‘kill the Indian in the child’.” We, as individuals in a society, need to move forward in our reconciliation journey, and education ‘in truth’ is one way to do this.

Scott talks more on what a journey of reconciliation might look like, saying “I really believe that our reconciliation journey is for everybody. It is not an Indigenous problem. It actually is a Canadian walk: a personal journey of self-discovery. This journey is about how we situate ourselves into the story of Canada and the land and our connection to it, and then from there, how we start to understand Indigenous peoples and the thousand-year-old histories. How can we reconcile it for ourselves to say ‘how can I be a good relative to the land, to the other-than-human world, to Indigenous peoples, [and] to every being that I share this space with’.” Reconciliation is a continuous journey that we are all on together, and each of us has a responsibility to join on the personal journey towards understanding and educating one another.

What we see in society today is intergenerational trauma stemming from experiences that are still alive and known. Orange Shirt Day is an opportunity to take time to remember and to learn. Scott says “[Orange Shirt Day] is honouring Residential School survivors… There are many things in the history of colonization that weren’t told, from a Western school perspective, and Residential Schools was one of them… It’s a time to pause and remember that these things happened in a lot of our lifetimes… We need to be pausing to honour those we’ve lost, the things that were lost because of the assimilative policy, and then the resilience and generosity and thriving of those who have healed.” Orange Shirt Day stands as an annual reminder to recognize and remember a past that is not so far in the past. It is also a time to renew our commitment to learning and growing in awareness and understanding ‘in truth.’

How can students get involved?

Every individual has a responsibility to acknowledge their place in our nation’s journey of reconciliation. This journey is continuous and requires education and knowledge sharing. Scott says “the ways in which we can personalize our responses to truth and reconciliation are really about … what stories are you going to tell and how do we then change the stories at our dinner tables? How do we educate others in our lives that don’t know these things? How do we – because we all have our own sphere of influence and relationships that we build out – stop someone from saying something racist? How do we get brave enough?”

Here are some ways to begin, or continue, your personal journey of reconciliation:

Anyone at any place on their journey is welcome. Scott beautifully reminds us that “this is about learning together. Everyone is welcome at the circle.”


  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JkssXtqScM0&feature=emb_logo (0:30)
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E3vUqr01kAk&feature=emb_logo (1:00)
  3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=2&v=ll1pUrK29MM&feature=emb_logo (1:40)
  4. https://www.orangeshirtday.org/about-us.html