NUPGE encourages all of its members to wear an orange shirt on September 30 to honour the lives of the former students and to recognize the inter-generational impacts of the residential school system on Indigenous people and communities.
Ottawa (29 Sept. 2020) — Tomorrow, on September 30, the National Union of Public and General Employees recognizes Orange Shirt Day. Orange Shirt Day recognizes “the harm the residential school system did to [Indigenous] children's sense of self-esteem and well being, and as an affirmation of our commitment to ensure that everyone around us matters.”
Trauma of the residential school system inter-generational
It is estimated that over 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children attended residential schools in Canada. Residential schools were funded by the Canadian government and operated in partnership with Christian churches of different denominations.
The goal of these schools was to cut youth off from their Indigenous families and culture to force them to assimilate to western (white) society. Students were forced to cut their hair, change their name, and speak only English.
On top of the abhorrent purpose of the schools, residential schools were often poorly built and cared for, meaning students lived in unsanitary conditions and many died from contagious diseases. Physical punishment was commonly inflicted on students caught speaking their own language and for other rule infractions. Sexual abuse was also a major problem. Thousands of students died in residential schools from disease, neglect, and in attempts to run away from school and return home. Residential schools operated in Canada from the mid-1800s into the 20th century. The last residential school in Canada closed in 1996.
The ramifications of the residential school system are still being felt today. Former students speaking out about their experiences at the schools resulted in apologies from some churches. In several cases, legal action was taken which resulted in the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, which was the largest class-action lawsuit in history. Part of the agreement was the launch of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC). While imperfect, the TRC amplified the voices of former students and helped their stories gather mainstream attention.
Though the TRC is part of reconciliation, the process of reconciliation is far from over. Inequalities that are the product of residential schools, including old and current policies, still negatively impact the lives of Indigenous people today. The TRC was a difficult process for former students since for many the trauma experienced in those schools (or the trauma experienced by their parents and grandparents) still affects them.
Orange Shirt Day is the legacy of the St. Joseph Mission Residential School Commemoration Project and Reunion events. The colour orange was chosen because of Phyllis (Jack) Webstad’s, executive director of the Orange Shirt Society, personal experience of her brad-new orange shirt being taken from her on her first day at a residential school. The date of September 30 was chosen because that is the time of year in which children were taken to residential schools. #Orange Shirt Day is also an opportunity for teachers and principals to explain anti-racism and anti-bullying policies to their students – perhaps even more important this year than others, given the prevalence of cyberbullying that existed before schools switched to online learning.
Participation in Orange Shirt Day encouraged
NUPGE encourages its members to wear an orange shirt on September 30 to honour the lives of the former students and to recognize the inter-generational impacts of the residential school system on Indigenous people and communities. Please visit the Orange Shirt Day’s website to find a list of Orange Shirt Day events (both virtual and in person).
The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 390,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. — NUPGE