Originating with a project that took place in Williams Lake, BC in May, 2013 and arising from Esketemc (Alkali Lake) Chief Fred Robbins’ vision, Orange Shirt Day is now an ongoing legacy. The initial project and subsequent annual awareness day was “designed to commemorate the residential school experience, to witness and honour the healing journey of the survivors and their families, and to commit to the ongoing process of reconciliation” (Source: Orange Shirt Day Society).

The day came to be called Orange Shirt Day as a result of Phyllis (Jack) Webstad’s story about her first day at residential school in 1973 when she was 6 years old. Despite not having much money, her grandmother took her shopping and she picked out a “shiny orange shirt” for her first day of school. Phyllis was very excited about the shirt and about going to school. But when she arrived at the Mission, they took her clothes away and she never saw her orange shirt again. For Phyllis, the colour orange reminds her of the lack of care and empathy shown towards her and the other children, and how worthless and insignificant she was made to feel.

Orange Shirt Day now occurs annually on September 30th. It is meant to be a critical reminder, each year when children go back to school, about racism and bullying – and the necessity of addressing both the individual and systemic issues that occur. It’s also an opportunity for everyone in all organizations – not just Indigenous people and organizations – to think about, learn, understand, and discuss the ongoing impact and trauma associated with residential schools, and do what they can to promote and take part in reconciliation. More than anything, it should serve as a means to reaffirm to survivors (as well as their descendants) not only that they matter, but that they are genuinely respected and valued.

Orange Shirt Day (and Beyond) in the Workplace

Whether your employees are together in the office/on the worksite or working remotely, there are several things employers can do to encourage awareness of Orange Shirt Day and what it represents.

  • Conversation – Actively and respectfully promote conversation amongst your teams, starting at the leadership table (ensuring that you’re not intentionally or unintentionally expecting Indigenous staff to teach you and your teams)
  • Reflection – Seriously and critically consider your own workplace practices related to the hiring, welcoming, supporting, developing, and retaining of Indigenous People
  • Decolonization – Rather than merely developing a statement or policy on diversity, truly understand what it means to decolonize your workplace at a systemic level
    • Be clear on the reasons for hiring and retaining BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) candidates
    • Ensure your hiring and onboarding processes respect and align with the diversity of Indigenous people and the value they can bring
    • Be sure you can and will support Indigenous people upon hire, such that they are meaningful and successful contributors, and not merely tokens of diversity
    • Determine whether you can provide unique resources if/as needed, including reasonable accommodation for cultural and family obligations
    • Be committed to holding your leadership and management teams responsible and accountable, beginning at self-reflection
    • Refer to the BCASW’s toolkit for further guidelines; while developed for social workers, it is relevant to all
  • Wear Orange – Wear orange and/or buy an orange shirt/lapel pin/face mask/etc. from Orange Shirt Day or another Indigenous organization to support their businesses
  • Donate – Donate to the Orange Shirt Day society
  • Read, Learn and Honour – Refer to our June post about ways to acknowledge, learn, honour and celebrate Indigenous culture, diversity, strength and resiliency

Overall, we encourage you to understand and appreciate the message behind “every child matters”, regardless of whether that child is now an adult.