Kahnawake students wear orange to remember horrors of residential schools

Thousands wore orange on Monday to honour the Indigenous cultural heritage and lives lost to Canada’s residential school system.

From the late 1800s until 1996, the Canadian government removed Indigenous children from their families, bringing them to boarding schools where they were forced to assimilate.

Don Barnaby’s mother was one of them. 

"I realized that my mother had gone through hell, she's gone through a lot and those emotional scars are hard to heal,” he said at a ceremony in Kahnawake. 

Dozens of children sat in a circle around him as he drummed and sang. Almost all wore orange. 

Sept. 30 is Orange Shirt Day—the event is meant to commemorate the experiences of over 150,000 Indigenous, Inuit and Metis children who were taken to the schools and "denied their identity," according to Justice Murray Sinclair, the chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commssion of Canada. Many suffered physical and sexual violence; several thousand died. 

Phyllis Webstad was taken to a residential school when she was six years old. Her grandmother bought her a new outfit for the occasion, including a new orange shirt. But when she arrived, workers took that away. 

“I never wore it again,” she wrote on orangeshirtday.org. “I felt like I was worth nothing. All of us little children were crying and no one cared.”

Decades later, she began wearing orange to remember the harm the school caused her and thousands of others.

Merrick Diabo works at the Kahnawake Survival School, where he works to preserve traditional practices. To him, Webstad’s orange shirt represents what was lost by those who attended the state-sponsored schools. 

"That orange shirt symbolized her family, it symbolized beauty, it symbolized her culture and her livelihood,” he said. “The fact remains that we’re still here. We still have our culture; we still have our traditions; we still have our language.”