Principal Gordon Johnson sits with students of John Muir Elementary to learn about the origins of Orange Shirt Day and the harm done by residential schools.

Principal Gordon Johnson sits with students of John Muir Elementary to learn about the origins of Orange Shirt Day and the harm done by residential schools.

Every child matters, say Orange Shirt Day organizers

Kids wear orange shirts in support of residential school survivors

On Friday, Sooke students joined youth across the country to gather in gyms and auditoriums to commemorate what has been described as a program of abuse and cultural genocide against First Nations children.

Orange Shirt Day is an event started in 2013 and is designed to educate, and promote awareness of the Indian residential school system.

That program was a network of boarding schools that operated between the 1870s and 1996 when the last residential school was closed.

The schools have been the subject of numerous studies, including the 2008 Truth and Reconciliation Commission and have generally become characterized by endemic sexual, physical, and emotional abuse perpetrated by the operators of the schools – groups that significantly included the Anglican, United, Presbyterian and Catholic churches.

It’s estimated that more than 150,000 Indian, Inuit, and Métis children attended the schools.

Orange Shirt Day is a name derived from the story of one residential school survivor, Phyllis Webstad, who was taken from her family in 1973 when she was six years old. Knowing that their little girl was going to be taken to the school, her grandmother saved enough money to buy her new clothing for school.

“We never had very much money, but somehow my granny managed to buy me a new outfit to go to the Mission (residential) school. I remember going to Robinson’s store and picking out a shiny orange shirt. It had string laced up in front, and was so bright and exciting,” recounted Webstad.

When she got to the school she, along with all the other children, was stripped of her clothing (which was burned) and never saw her special shirt again. It began a journey of abuse and neglect from which she continues to recover today.

Webstad’s story and the story of residential schools was read to the assembled students of John Muir Elementary on Friday morning and the children watched with rapt attention as the story unfolded. Most of the children wore orange shirts of their own as a symbol of recognition and respect.

“Today was a special day. It was about the importance of cultural diversity and inclusion and how important each of our cultures is,” said Gord Johnson, the principal of John Muir.

“It sort of brought a tear to your eye, but it was one of those times that makes you feel like you’re part of something important. Every child matters.”

On the Pacheedaht First Nation, Chief Jeff Jones said that he’s heartened by events like Orange Shirt Day.

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“My dad went to residential school. But when he got wind that they were coming to take us away he packed us up and we went to Oregon so they couldn’t take us,” said Jones.

“He knew. It definitely affected the way he lived … it affected our lives … the pain he went through and the actions he showed. It was hard to watch.”

The Orange Shirt Society is a non-profit organization whose goal is to create awareness of the individual, family and community inter-generational impacts of Indian residential schools.