September 30 marked the second annual National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, a national holiday in Canada commemorating the memory of the residential school era that affected thousands of Indigenous children and their families across the country.
It is also commonly known as Orange Shirt Day, which was originated by the Indigenous members of the St. Joseph Mission Residential School Commemoration Project and Reunion, an event first held in Williams Lake, BC, in 2013.
The image of the orange shirt comes from the story of Phyllis Jack Webstad, a survivor of this residential school. She recounted how, in 1973 when she was six years old, her grandmother had given her a bright new orange shirt to wear to school. When she arrived at the school, all her clothes were taken away and she was instead given a plain school uniform. As a child, it must have been terribly upsetting to lose such a precious gift from her grandmother. The childhood memory of that bright orange shirt gave her a permanent reminder of that period of her life and what she and others experienced at residential school.
That feeling of loss, pain and sadness represented by a bright orange shirt became a symbol for other survivors of the residential school era. It is also a powerful reminder for someone like me who is the child of two residential-school survivors. My father Marius Kataquapit attended the notorious St. Anne’s Residential School in Fort Albany, and my mother attended the Fort George Residential School near Chisasibi. It wasn’t until the end of their lives that my parents talked about their experiences at these schools. The lifelong trauma that they lived with was passed down to those in my generation and it continues to affect our communities in many negative ways.
This year’s commemoration served as a reminder as to where and how this period of Canadian history occurred in the first place. It happened because the very wealthy wanted to develop the resources of this country by systemically removing Indigenous peoples. The residential school system and many other dark initiatives came about because the wealthy few wanted more riches.
These days, there is a strong resurgence of conservative and right-wing ideas. More and more closed-minded political leaders are preying on people’s fears and hate. The billionaires of this world who control corporations, media and government to a great degree want to put in right-wing political leaders who will do their bidding. They won’t have to pay attention to sharing any wealth fairly, they won’t need to worry about environmental or conservation concerns and they can develop resources anywhere.
We need only to look back at history to recall the right-wing fascist movements where the very wealthy put in place leaders like Hitler in Germany, Mussolini in Italy, Franco in Spain and Pinochet in Chile. The strategy in supporting these right-wing leaders was to get rid of the idea of social democracy, labour unions and any groups who advocate for equitable distribution of wealth.
The right-wing and fascist ideas today that are growing everywhere are the same forces that established programs like a residential school system. Indigenous people were seen as a threat to society and business that should be eliminated.
The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation Day or Orange Shirt Day is not just a commemoration of what happened in the past. It serves as a reminder and a warning to society that we all must work together to make sure that this never happens again.
If we do not want to see this type of intolerance and hatred again, we have to do something about it now by standing up to hate and right-wing political movements. If we do not, far-right forces will bully their way into government and there will be no more reconciliation, no more meaningful treaty negotiations, no positive social and health and education benefits to Indigenous people.
I don’t think any of us want these kinds of right-wing leaders in power in Canada or anywhere else in the world. Orange Shirt Day is a reminder that while we think of all those affected by the residential schools, we need to stand up against right-wing, hate-filled fascist movements.