Phyllis Webstad was six years old when her orange shirt was taken away from her. She never saw the shirt again. She had just bought it with her grandmother for her first day of school at the Mission residential school. She picked out the shiny orange shirt herself.
“It had string laced up in front, and was so bright and exciting — just like I felt to be going to school,” Webstad says in her story published at orangeshirtday.com
When she got to Mission, they stripped her and took away her clothes.
Webstad’s story is not unique. But because she has shared it and because she has reclaimed the colour as a way to help ensure that her story and the tens of thousands like it are never forgotten, we recognize Orange Shirt Day annually on Sept. 30. We wear orange to honour the victims and survivors of the cultural genocide that plagued our nation for more than a century.
Orange Shirt Day is just one of an increasing number of initiatives that will allow us as a nation to respond to the calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Call to Action 62 calls upon federal, provincial and territorial governments in collaboration with educators, survivors and Aboriginal peoples to make age-appropriate curriculum on residential schools and Indigenous history a mandatory part of K–12 education for all students.
The Government of Alberta, along with the Alberta Teachers’ Association and other educational stakeholder organizations, signed the Joint Commitment to Action in response to this call to action. It reads, in part, “Through our collaborative efforts, and commitment to work with First Nations, Métis and Inuit partners, the true and complete shared history of Canada’s First Peoples will be embedded within the educational experience of all students.”
As I reflected on Orange Shirt Day this year, I couldn’t help but think of another person’s words.
“Here in Canada the preoccupation with victimhood has mostly centred on Japanese Canadians and residential school ‘survivors.’”
“The ongoing fad (in social studies curriculum) is that we need ‘more’ First Nations ‘perspectives’… The plug must be pulled on the deplorable agitprop of the ‘KAIROS Blanket,’ which brainwashes children into thinking of themselves as ‘settlers’ stealing the land — the kind of ‘truth and reconciliation’ that is not evidence-based but relies on ‘knowledge keepers’ to ‘foster truth.’”
These are words published by Chris Champion. Champion was named this summer to act as a key advisor on the development of Alberta’s next social studies curriculum.
Champion’s words, on their own, are hurtful and harmful. But beyond that, they are part of a deliberate argument made and repeated that the teaching of social studies in this manner needs to be abandoned and replaced with a history curriculum that doubles down on the Eurocentric perspective.
“Canadians especially need Classical, European, and US history because North American societies are offshoots of Europe’s, particularly those of Britain and France,” Champion writes. “Of course there is value in other cultures but we can never truly appreciate or evaluate foreign cultures without first knowing our own.”
Champion is fundamentally wrong. And he should be nowhere near the levers of power that will develop Alberta’s curriculum. He must be dismissed from this privileged role.
In lieu of firing Champion, the government must revoke its endorsement of the Joint Commitment to Action. The government is no longer committed to ensuring that the “true and complete” history of Canada’s First Peoples is shared.
And furthermore, I don’t want to hear any government minister or MLA talking about Orange Shirt Day. Anything they say on it, while keeping Champion in the role he has been given, is hollow, meaningless and insensitive.
Orange Shirt Day is about remembering and ensuring that the survivors and their stories are not erased, thanks to Phyllis Webstad.
“The colour orange has always reminded me of [having my shirt taken away] and how my feelings didn’t matter, how no one cared and how I felt like I was worth nothing,” she shares. “All of us little children were crying and no one cared.” ❚