Orange Shirt Day is September 30th in Canada, a time when Canadians are encouraged to wear orange to acknowledge the mistreatment of Indigenous communities historically that has resulted in generational trauma. It is also known as the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. The purpose of Orange Shirt Day is to educate people and promote awareness about the Indian residential school system and the impact it has had, and still has, on Indigenous communities for over a century.
The inspiration for Orange Shirt Day came from residential school survivor Phyllis Jack Webstad, who recounts her first day of residential schooling at six years old. Her clothes were taken away, including the new orange shirt her grandmother bought for her, which was never returned. “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,” Webstad told CBC, a Canadian news source in 2016.
The significance of September 30th marks the time of year when Indigenous children were historically taken from their homes to residential schools, where children were subjected to traumatic assimilation practices. The orange shirt now symbolizes how the residential school system took away the Indigenous identities of its students and the lasting impact it has had on Indigenous communities – an impact recognized as cultural genocide.
While this topic is heavy for families, it’s important to educate children about historical wrongs so we can learn from them and begin to repair the damage that has been done. We’ve put together a list of some of our favourite books by Indigenous authors to support conversations about Residential Schools this week:
Orange Shirt Day Children’s Booklist:
1) Phyllis’ Orange Shirt by Phyllis Webstad
Phyllis’s Orange Shirt is an adaptation of The Orange Shirt Story which was the best selling children’s book in Canada for several weeks in September 2018. This true story also inspired the movement of Orange Shirt Day which could become a federal statutory holiday. When Phyllis was a little girl she was excited to go to residential school for the first time. Her Granny bought her a bright orange shirt that she loved and she wore it to school for her first day. When she arrived at school her bright orange shirt was taken away. This is Phyllis Webstad’s true story and the story behind Orange Shirt Day, a day to reflect upon the treatment of First Nations people and the message that ”Every Child Matters”. Adapted for ages 4-6.
2) When We Were Alone by David A. Robertson
A young girl notices things about her grandmother that make her curious. Why does her grandmother have long, braided hair and beautifully coloured clothing? Why does she speak Cree and spend so much time with her family? As she asks questions, her grandmother shares her experiences in a residential school, when all of these things were taken away.
3) Fatty Legs by Margaret-Olemaun Pokiak-Fenton, Christy Jordan-Fenton
A story of an Inuvialuit girl standing up to the bullies of residential school. Margaret Olemaun Pokiak-Fenton’s powerful story of residential school in the far North. This story is an “inspiring first-person account of a plucky girl’s determination to confront her tormentor,” based on a true story.
4) A Stranger At Home by Christy Jordan-Fenton, Margaret-Olemaun Pokiak-Fenton
This is the story “of a young girl’s struggle to find her place” after returning home from 2 years at an Indian Residential School.
5) The Orange Shirt Story by Phyllis Webstadm
When Phyllis Webstad (nee Jack) turned six, she went to the residential school for the first time. On her first day at school, she wore a shiny orange shirt that her Granny had bought for her, but when she got to the school, it was taken away from her and never returned. This is the true story of Phyllis and her orange shirt. It is also the story of Orange Shirt Day.
6) I Am Not A Number by Jenny Dupuis, Kathy Kacer
When eight-year-old Irene is removed from her First Nations family to live in a residential school, she is confused, frightened, and terribly homesick. She tries to remember who she is and where she came from, despite the efforts of the nuns who are in charge at the school and who tell her that she is not to use her own name but instead use the number they have assigned to her. When she goes home for summer holidays, Irene”s parents decide never to send her and her brothers away again. But what will happen when her parents disobey the law? Based on the life of co-author Jenny Kay Dupuis’ grandmother, I Am Not a Number is a hugely necessary book that brings a terrible part of Canada’s history to light in a way that children can learn from and relate to.
7) As Long as the Rivers Flow by Larry Loyie, Constance Brissenden
As Long as the Rivers Flow is the story of Larry Loyie”s last summer before entering residential school. It is a time of learning and adventure. He cares for an abandoned baby owl and watches his grandmother make winter moccasins. He helps the family prepare for a hunting and gathering trip.
8) Go Show the World by Wab Kinew
Celebrating the stories of Indigenous people throughout time, Wab Kinew has created a powerful rap song, the lyrics of which are the basis for the text in this beautiful picture book, illustrated by the acclaimed Joe Morse. Including figures such as Crazy Horse, Net-no-kwa, former NASA astronaut John Herrington and Canadian NHL goalie Carey Price, Go Show the World showcases a diverse group of Indigenous people in the US and Canada, both the more well known and the not- so-widely recognized.
9) Speaking Our Truth by Monique Gray Smith
This nonfiction book examines how we can foster reconciliation with Indigenous people at individual, family, community and national levels.
10) SHI-SHI-ETKO by Nicola Campbell
In just four days young Shi-shi-etko will have to leave her family and all that she knows to attend residential school. She spends her last days at home treasuring the beauty of her world – the dancing sunlight, the tall grass, each shiny rock. Her mother, father and grandmother, each in turn, share valuable teachings that they want her to remember. And so Shi-shi-etko carefully gathers her memories for safekeeping.
In addition to reading books with children and wearing an orange shirt, parents can open a healthy dialogue with their children and encourage them to learn more about the history of residential schools. For instance, many communities have held memorial walks, film screenings, and public lectures to raise awareness about Indigenous history. The official tagline of the day, “Every Child Matters”, reminds Canadians that all peoples’ cultural experiences are important.
Visit here for additional adult content about Orange Shirt Day.