On September 30, UBC will honour Orange Shirt Day. The day commemorates victims and survivors of the Indian Residential School System and looks to raise awareness on topics surrounding the schools.

Orange Shirt Day was started by residential school survivor Phyllis Webstad, who arrived at the St. Joseph Mission residential school with an orange shirt her grandmother gave her. Upon her arrival at the school the shirt was confiscated, as she was forced to wear a uniform.

“It’s very symbolic of their first entry into residential schools and time spent at residential schools where your identity and things that belonged to you were all taken away,” said Tricia Logan, assistant director of research and engagement at UBC’s Residential School History and Dialogue Centre (RSHDC).

The Indian Residential School System was a compulsory education program for Indigenous children. Officially beginning in 1883, the last school was not closed until 1996.

During this process, children as young as four were forcibly removed from their families and sent away from their communities. These schools — which were run by Catholic, Anglican and United churches — banned Indigenous students from speaking their own languages, forced them to conform to the western practices and often subjected them to sexual, physical and mental abuse.

Orange Shirt Day seeks to commemorate the victims and survivors of residential schools, but it also looks to do more than that.

“[It is a] memorial and commemoration for children who passed away but also [an opportunity] to reflect on those broader topics of social justice and reconciliation and anti-descrimination and racism,” said Logan.

“Having Orange Shirt Day can renew that conversation and have a different conversation every year.”

UBC has held events for Orange Shirt Day since 2017. Past events have included walking tours of campus and educational talks. This year, UBC has a number of events planned to honor the day.

For instance, the faculty of applied science is hosting an event titled “Learn and Walk Together.” The walk will start at the RSHDC and move to the Reconciliation Pole while discussing the history of the Residential School System. The RSHDC will also be open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. for visitors to tour the centre and view the exhibits on display.

The focus of the events on campus this year is to bring more attention to the cause.

“This year, what we were really trying to do was sort of raise awareness and see if we could spread the message about Orange Shirt Day,” said Jessica Woolman, communications strategist at the RSHDC.

Woolman said that they have sent out packages of T-shirts, mugs and buttons with “Every Child Matters” messaging on it to various people and groups on campus.

“We have really seen a large response to that, with people following up and wanting buttons for their staff, or we’ve seen a few different units responding by having events on the day,” said Woolman.

Opening conversations

At its core, Orange Shirt Day is meant to open a dialogue on a topic that is not frequently discussed.

“[Orange Shirt Day] is based on education,” said Logan. “What a legacy of colonialism is and was in Canada.”

“A lot of Orange Shirt Day is about creating awareness and having those conversations. Sometimes it’s difficult conversations.”

Though difficult, those conversations on colonialism and the impacts of residential schools need to be had to forward reconciliation. Logan said a challenge that is facing those conversations are those who don’t want to participate.

“There are people … who are a little less willing to listen to those stories. We need to present survivor stories and histories of colonialism in Canada and Indigenous peoples.”

Logan stressed that this anniversary is not just for Indigenous people or those directly affected by residential schools.

“Sometimes people hear the stories and think ‘that’s just for Indigenous people,’” she said. “But [it’s important] to really learn about these broader topics in Canada — anti-discrimination, anti-bullying, anti-racism and how that involves all children. That message of ‘every child matters’ really hopefully shines through throughout Orange Shirt Day and after Orange Shirt Day. That message of valuing children and valuing their identities.”

‘Ongoing legacy’

Amidst all these activities, there can still be a difficult side to opening up conversations on Indian residential schools and the trauma suffered.

“You are surrounded by people on campus who are still affected by residential schools. It’s not something that happened in the past, it’s an ongoing legacy. So we need to be mindful of that. We’re trying to raise awareness about this but we’re also trying to say ‘also be supportive’ because there are people out there who will be affected by this day, who will be triggered by it,” said Woolman.

“We need to have that mental health support, we need to have that type of support network in place for them.”

UBC does have resources ready for Indigenous students and faculty who may feel affected by the day. The RSHDC has the Elders Lounge, a space dedicated for Indigenous elders and those who feel distressed.

“Whether they're Elders or public who are visiting, if they are feeling overwhelmed and they need a place to go visit there is a place in our buildings that offers that. We also try and offer tips on self-care strategies,” said Woolman.

“On Monday, on that specific day, we will have health and mental support and cultural support for people to stop by that will be through the Indian residential school survivor society.”

For Renee Avitan, an Indigenous counsellor with UBC Counselling services and the First Nations House of Learning (FNHL), the day provides an opportunity to discuss and deal with the difficult topic.

“[Orange Shirt Day] is a way to bring together people, families, survivors, children of survivors to witness their stories, to talk about and share in the pain but also, again, all the creative ways and capacity that we’ve built to survive trauma,” said Avitan.

“I think it's kind of a bridge between generation that makes us a lot stronger.”

The RSHDC will not be the only place offering support for Indigenous students on Monday. The FNHL will also have Indigenous counselling available. It has the counselling services all year round but offers drop-in sessions as well.

“I have my office open at the Long House and drop in hours from 1 to 4 p.m. for Indigenous students. It just allows a kind of flow for people to be able to come in as they need to, to talk about what's happening for them,” said Avitan.

“For me, it's about providing a safe place to talk about those things, to maybe teach and to offer some skills around trying to have a hopeful outlook on what's happening. I think it's just about being as open as possible to allow people to own their experience and also to potentially find direction about what the next steps are around healing.”