News / Vancouver

Orange Shirt Day helps schools teach residential school history

“We want to build the kind of Canada where something like Indian residential school would never happen.”

Terri Suntjen, director of Edmonton's Indigenous Centre (left) and Keely, O'Dell, a student who designed the shirts, wear orange shirts in honour of the legacy of residential school survivors.

Kevin Tuong / Metro Edmonton

Terri Suntjen, director of Edmonton's Indigenous Centre (left) and Keely, O'Dell, a student who designed the shirts, wear orange shirts in honour of the legacy of residential school survivors.

More B.C. schools are observing Orange Shirt Day as a way to teach students about the history of Indian residential schools, and the event is also catching on in the rest of the country.

“Kids nowadays probably know more than their parents did about Indian residential schools and the history of aboriginal people in Canada, and that’s what we want,” said Gordon Powell, vice-principal of aboriginal education at the Surrey School District. Powell's mother is a member of the Qalipu Nation in Newfoundland and he identifies as Mi’kmaw.

“We want to build the kind of Canada where something like Indian residential school would never happen.”

Orange Shirt Day was inspired by a story told by residential school survivor Phyllis Webstad to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Webstad, a member of the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation near Williams Lake, talked about how she was devastated when a new orange shirt her grandmother had bought her to start school was taken from her.

Surrey was an early adopter of Orange Shirt Day: most schools in Surrey participated last year, and this year the district started to organize with schools even earlier to make sure the event does not get lost in September’s back to school rush. Some schools from eastern Canada are now requesting French-language material that Surrey has prepared.

Last year, Vancouver schools were not in session on Orange Shirt Day because of a professional development day. But this year several schools are participating, said Chas Desjarlais, vice-principal of aboriginal education at the Vancouver School Board. Desjarlais is Cree-Metis and a member of the Cold Lake First Nation and Treaty 6 First Nation.

For instance, John Oliver and Charles Tupper Secondary will be holding school assemblies where residential school survivors will be sharing their stories, while Henderson Elementary will hold a reconciliation walk around the school.

While some schools in Surrey have ordered orange shirts for students to wear, one school will be taking a different approach: asking students to wear their favourite shirt — just like Phyllis Webstad did as a child — and an Orange Shirt Day button.

For Powell, Orange Shirt Day is just one date on the calendar that educators can use as an entry to teach about aboriginal history and culture. Other dates include the fall wapato harvest (a type of potato traditionally harvested by the Katzie First Nation), Louis Riel Day in November, the Nisga’a Hoobiyee (New Year) event in February, and Indigenous Reads in April.

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