In 1973, Phyllis Webstad arrived at the St. Joseph Mission Residential School in Williams Lake, British Columbia. Having just turned six years old and sporting a brand new, bright orange shirt from her grandmother, Phyllis remembers how excited she was to be attending school. Instead, on that first day, her clothes were taken and not returned. For her, it was an early sign that her feelings didn’t matter and that these people didn’t care: “I felt like I was worth nothing.” Following a reunion of former students in 2013, Orange Shirt Day: Every Child Matters was established and quickly spread as a movement, building awareness and encouraging reconciliation. Orange Shirt Day takes place annually on September 30.
At St. Michaels University School, perhaps our most important decision has been to not make Orange Shirt Day the centrepiece of our approach. After all, if we are to hold the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Report in one hand and the emerging provincial requirements around First Peoples Principles of Learning in the other, it’s clear that an appropriate path forward requires much more of us than a single, high profile day – even one as significant as Orange Shirt Day.
This is why we have been working for the last three years with Bill White, a traditionally trained, Coast Salish Elder. Through his thoughtful, knowledgeable guidance, we’ve begun the deeper task of reviewing what we teach, the way it’s presented, and as much as possible, how we might become a place where children from indigenous communities would feel completely welcome. With an eye to developing cultural fluency across our community, this work has already entered our classrooms and will be increasingly featured in the school’s formal plans going into the future.
How we approach Orange Shirt Day reflects this wider approach.
Our local traditional people would suggest that Western approaches to teaching history follow the format of talking about a war and then moving to a famine before returning to the next war on the timeline. For our traditional community, the emphasis is on values. If we are to talk about residential schools, we must first talk about communal values, then talk about the tragedy, then reaffirm the values of the community. Also, even with the values emphasized, the relaying of the tragedy must be done in a way that considers age and stage so that those in attendance are not harmed.
This is why Chapels the week before and the week after Orange Shirt Day offer stories that speak to the values of our traditional community (if you’re interested in what was shared in Junior School this week, you can follow this link to an audio recording on my website). It’s also why our Junior and Middle School students have used time in class and an array of resources to foster a basic understanding of the day. It’s why the school supports the efforts of Haley Paetkau (Penelakut) and Abi Porttris (Metis) as they lead the Junior School’s initiative. It’s why the Middle School Chapel is being entirely led by students. It’s why the Senior School Service Council will sell orange bracelets to support the fundraising effort of the Junior School.
Orange Shirt Day is coming to hold meaning for our community because of a wider, intentional, locally-informed path being forged by our Board, our staff, and most importantly, our students.