In 1973, Phyllis Webstad was six years old, heading off to a residential school in British Columbia, proudly wearing a new orange shirt her grandmother bought. Upon her arrival, and as part of a larger mission to assimilate Indigenous children into a settler-colonial society, Webstad was stripped of her clothing – and her self-worth. She never saw her orange shirt again.
Her story is the inspiration behind Orange Shirt Day, a national event that recognizes and honours more than 150,000 Indigenous children who attended close to 150 residential schools that operated in Canada for 150 years.
This year, as part of a virtual Orange Shirt Day – on Wednesday, Sept. 30 – Western’s Office of Indigenous Initiatives (OII) and the Indigenous Student Centre (ISC) are encouraging members of the Western community to mark the event by purchasing and wearing a customized orange shirt.
Available online and at The Book Store, the shirts retail for $24.95, with $6 from each sale directed to the Orange Shirt Fund, which helps promote awareness and education.
Students, faculty and staff are asked to post photos of themselves wearing the shirt on their social media accounts, using the hashtag, #turnwesternorange.
“We also want them to note what they’ve done to learn about the day,” said Paula Hedgepeth, OII community relations and space coordinator. “What did they Google? What did they find out?”
In addition to honouring the survivors of residential schools, and those who did not make it home, Hedgepeth also sees the event as an opportunity to share a broader message.
“We would like to focus more on the resiliency of Indigenous Peoples,” Hedgepeth said. “We know what we’ve experienced, what our ancestors, our grandfathers and our grandmothers had to go through.
“We do want those stories shared, but we also want to share that we are still here, we are thriving and we are growing. We want to focus on the achievements we are making as well as making people aware of what happened.”
The ISC is running its own virtual Orange Shirt campaign on Instagram and Facebook in the days leading up to Wednesday’s virtual event and is providing learning resources and actionable items for their audiences.
The campaign culminates on Orange Shirt Day, with a post of the Eagle Flight Singers performing an honour song on the grounds of the former Mount Elgin residential school, in the community of Chippewas of the Thames First Nation, just west of London.