Wearing Orange to Remember and Act

Wearing Orange to Remember and Act

Yme Woensdregt

This Sunday, September 30, is Orange Shirt Day.

Why orange?

It began as part of a commemoration event for residential school survivors in Williams Lake, BC in 2013. It grew out of Phyllis Webstad’s story about having her orange shirt taken away from her on the first day of school at the St. Joseph Mission school. As Phyllis explains,

“I went to the Mission for one school year in 1973–1974. I had just turned 6 years old. I lived with my grandmother on the Dog Creek reserve. We never had very much money, but somehow my granny managed to buy me a new outfit to go to the Mission school. I remember going to Robinson’s store and picking out a shiny orange shirt. It had string laced up in front, and was so bright and exciting—just like I felt to be going to school!

“When I got to the Mission, they stripped me, and took away my clothes, including the orange shirt! I never wore it again. I didn’t understand why they wouldn’t give it back to me, it was mine! I didn’t want to be at school anymore, but I had to stay there for 300 sleeps.

“The colour orange has always reminded me of that and how my feelings didn’t matter, how no one cared and how I felt like I was worth nothing. All of us little children were crying and no one cared.

“I was 13.8 years old and in grade 8 when my son Jeremy was born. Because my grandmother and mother both attended residential school for 10 years each, I never knew what a parent was supposed to be like. With the help of my aunt, Agness Jack, I was able to raise my son and have him know me as his mother.

“I went to a treatment center for healing when I was 27 and have been on this healing journey since then. I finally get it, that the feeling of worthlessness and insignificance, ingrained in me from my first day at the mission, affected the way I lived my life for many years. Even now, when I know nothing could be further than the truth, I still sometimes feel that I don’t matter. Even with all the work I’ve done!”

It’s a heartbreaking story. It’s one of thousands of similar stories of children being ripped from their families and sent to residential schools like the St. Joseph Mission in Williams Lake, or lake the St. Eugene Mission School in Cranbrook. Aboriginal children were sent to residential schools to “beat the Indian out of them” (in John A MacDonald’s memorable phrase) and to make them more like us white people.

It went way beyond having a new orange shirt taken away. They were forbidden to speak their language and were severely beaten when they did. Their hair was cut off. Their culture was denied to them. They were not allowed to see their families.

As if that wasn’t tragic enough, other effects lasted through generations. These children didn’t learn how to be parents, because they had no parents to learn from. As a result, generations of children continue to live with the effects of the abuse of residential schools.

Part of the underlying reason for this attitude can be found in the “Doctrine of Discovery”. It was included in an edict issued by Pope Alexander VI in 1493. The edict “Inter Caetera” asserted that any lands not inhabited by Christians were empty, unowned, and available to be discovered, claimed and exploited by Christian powers. The Pope called these lands “terra nullius” — “nobody’s land”, and it was applied to North America.

As a result, these colonial powers—England, France, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands—were able take over and profit from lands which had been inhabited by Indigenous Peoples from time immemorial. These powers accumulated massive wealth by extracting natural resources from the land.

The Doctrine of Discovery denied the essential humanity of our brothers and sisters who have lived here. They weren’t “Christian” (as defined by church powers), and therefore the land was considered empty. There were no humans here.

The Doctrine of Discovery laid the groundwork for the racism and injustice that continues to be current to this day.

I am proud to be part of the Anglican Church of Canada which officially repudiated this Doctrine. We denied it had any validity.

But now, the hard work begins. Now, survivors will continue to tell their stories. Now, we will need to continue listening with open hearts. Now, we need to unlearn much of what we thought we knew, for we have been taught falsely. Now, we need to learn about a shameful part of Canada’s past. Now, we need to become more aware of what happened, and the lasting effects of what we have done.

Most importantly, now we need to begin to talk together with our indigenous brothers and sisters and begin the work of reconciliation.

I’ll be wearing my orange shirt. It’s a tiny, tiny thing. But it’s a start.

Rev. Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook