We expect better, UVic — especially on Orange Shirt Day

Op-eds Opinions

Disappointed by the attempt at Orange Shirt Day in the quad

Orange Shirt Day is an annual event intended to raise awareness about Canada’s history with residential schools. Photo by Mike Graeme, Senior Staff Writer.

The origin of Orange Shirt Day is chronicled in The Orange Shirt Story, a book narrating the experience that 6-year-old Phyllis Webstad went through when she started her first day of residential school at St. Joseph’s Mission. Before the story begins, Webstad prefaces the book by sharing how important it is that we learn our own histories. After all, such learning helps create opportunities for reconciliatory relationships. I expected Webstad’s words to be honoured when I attended Orange Shirt Day at UVic on Sept. 30, 2019. However, as a trespassing settler, I was mortified at how the Songhees were treated. 

Phyllis Webstad begins her story by sharing what her life was like before she started residential school. She talks about living with her Granny, eating food from their garden, and fishing at the Fraser River and reveals that Granny’s home was a safe space for everyone in her community at the Dog Creek Reserve. 

However, she also talks about how lonely it was for her growing up without her cousin and other children who attended residential school for 300 days of the year. 

On her sixth birthday, Granny tells an excited Webstad that she will be attending residential school with her cousin. To mark the special occasion, Granny takes Webstad shopping, where she picks out an orange shirt. On the first day of school, Webstad proudly wears the orange shirt. But upon her arrival to St. Joseph’s Mission, Webstad is met by unfriendly nuns, who confiscate her shirt, cut her hair, and are unresponsive to her grief, illness, pain, or hunger. 

Eventually, Webstad escapes from the abuse. She points out that not every child was as lucky as her. 

Webstad’s story is one among thousands. So when I attended Orange Shirt Day in the quad, I not only expected to be part of an event that prioritized the voices of residential school survivors and their families, I expected UVic to acknowledge their colonial history. I expected them to honour the Songhees by asserting their inherent sovereignty to the land UVic occupies. After all, acknowledging this history would have helped settlers learn about their own histories and learn the histories of the Songhees, which in turn would have helped create opportunities for reconciliatory relationships. 

Instead, when it was time to hear from the Songhees they were specifically asked to the mic to do a “welcome” and drum. 

They were not welcomed to share what they wished about residential schools or Orange Shirt Day. 

When Orange Shirt Day began at Williams Lake, B.C. in 2013, it was Indigenous-led, Indigenous-centered, and intended to educate Canadians about residential schools and honour the children and survivors of those schools. It was also intended to help reconciliation efforts. 

Currently, the organization is involved in two ongoing projects. One of the projects, in partnership with the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, will include a national speaking tour to schools and the production of a documentary. The other, in partnership with Medicine Wheel Education, will create an official textbook about Orange Shirt Day. 

How does UVic intend to help with these two projects or other projects the organization wishes to initiate?

More specifically, how can UVic help residential school survivors in the Lekwungen and W̱SÁNEĆ nations on whose territory they operate? 

Although Orange Shirt Day is crucial to remembering and honouring, UVic as a community needs to create opportunities for truly reconciliatory relationships through this event. But that can only take place when we reflect on who we are as settlers, where we stand, and what we need to do to honour survivors and their families. 

Thus, next year, instead of having the Songhees come to do a “welcome” and drum for the event, UVic could perhaps fund Songhees-centred initiatives for Orange Shirt Day, in which the nations could invite UVic — and not the other way around — to participate.