Written by Tessa Prior, Howe Sound Women’s Centre Volunteer

September 30 is Orange Shirt Day commemorating the residential school experience and an opportunity to come together in the spirit of reconciliation. The idea grew out of Phyllis Webstad’s account of residential schools, shared at St. Joseph’s residential school commemoration event in the spring of 2013. For Phyllis, the orange shirt represents what was taken away from her so many years ago…

On her first day of school, Phyllis was stripped and had her clothes taken away, including the new orange shirt her grandmother bought her for school. Orange Shirt Day, Every Child Matters was established to raise awareness of our history, to show support for residential school survivors, and to commit to the ongoing process of reconciliation.

On June 11, 2008 Prime Minister Stephen Harper, on behalf of the Government of Canada, made a formal apology to the survivors of Indian Residential Schools, their families, and communities for Canada’s role in the operation of residential schools. In his apology, Harper said “The burden of this experience has been on your shoulders for far too long. The burden is properly ours as a Government and as a country.”

Over 150, 000 First Nations, Metis and Inuit children were taken from their homes, families and communities to government-funded, church-run schools from 1830 until 1996. The children were forbidden to speak their language or practice their own culture. The goal was to assimilate Aboriginal children into settler culture, “to kill the Indian in the child” as it was often said. Many children who attended residential schools experienced physical, sexual and emotional abuse.

More than 130 residential schools operated across the country, with the last residential school closing in 1996. The ongoing impact of residential schools has been felt throughout generations and has contributed to social problems that continue to persist in our communities to this day.[1]

For example, the impact of colonization can be seen in the alarming high rates of disappearance and deaths of Aboriginal women and violence against Aboriginal women. Over a 5 year period, the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) recorded information about 582 missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls across Canada in the Sisters In Spirit database.[2] In 2013, the Commissioner of the RCMP initiated an RCMP led study. RCMP confirmed that there are 1,181 police recorded incidents of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls across the country over the past 30 years.[3] In exploring root causes, trends and the impact of colonization, the NWAC explains,  “Aboriginal women in Canada have historically been devalued not only as Aboriginal people but also simply because they are women. It is important to acknowledge the impacts of colonization and recognize that they currently exist and affect Aboriginal women and girls.”[4]

In response to Stephen Harper’s formal apology, Beverly Jacobs, president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, asked the Prime Minister what the government was going to do, what was going to be provided, to help Aboriginal people deal with the major human rights violations suffered by survivors of the government-mandated residential school system.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) was established following a class-action settlement, The Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. The TRC was founded with the mandate to inform all Canadians about what happened in residential schools by documenting the stories of Survivors, their families and communities, and support First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples “in a process of truth and healing leading toward reconciliation and renewed relationships based on mutual understanding and respect.” In June 2015, the TRC released 94 recommendations, and will be publishing a final report.

However, the government has not acted on the recommendations, including the recommendation for a public inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women. The government has said it will wait for the final report before providing a response to the commission’s recommendations.

Today on September 30, seven years since the formal apology was issued, we question what action has been taken to help relieve “the burden of this experience?” What does the government plan to do to help residential schools survivors, their families and whole communities heal and what resources are going to be provided to support reconciliation?

We also ask you to do your part. The recommendations for change include calling for change in “the way we talk to, and about, each other.” Know Canada’s history, understand its legacy and do what you can to address it. By taking the initiative to understand the intergenerational effects of colonization, you will have the knowledge to advocate for further action by the Canadian government to carry out the recommendations made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

And on October 4, show your support and honour the lives of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls by participating in the Whistler Sisters in Spirit Vigil. The vigil will take place from 11:00am-3:00pm on Sunday October 4, starting at the Welcome Pole in the Village Common area and ending at Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre.


[1] http://www.trc.ca/websites/trcinstitution/index.php?p=4

[2] http://www.nwac.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Fact_Sheet_Missing_and_Murdered_Aboriginal_Women_and_Girls.pdf

[3] http://www.rcmp-grc.gc.ca/pubs/mmaw-faapd-eng.htm

[4] http://www.nwac.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Fact_Sheet_Root_Causes_of_Violence_Against_Aboriginal_Women.pdf

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