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Orange Shirt Day is intended to raise awareness in Canada of the thousands of First Nations, Métis and Inuit children who were removed from their homes at this time of year and forced to attend residential schools.
To mark the day, which falls annually on Sept. 30, UHN this year is honoured to be a supporting partner of a virtual ceremony hosted by Women's College Hospital (WCH), recognizing the lives taken, the survivors and the lasting generational impact of residential schools.
"The colonial foundations of Canada have resulted in structural barriers to healthcare for Indigenous peoples for numerous reasons," says Dr. Lisa Richardson, Staff Physician in General Internal Medicine at UHN and co-Chair of UHN's Indigenous Health Council as well as Strategic Lead in Indigenous Health for Temerty Faculty of Medicine and Women's College Hospital. "These foundations hinder the relationships due to ongoing individual and structural racism which negatively impacts the health and well-being of Indigenous people and communities."
"This is why, as healthcare workers, it is important that we not only acknowledge the past, but also take on the responsibility to educate ourselves about Canada's colonial policies and practices - both historical and ongoing
- and work for system change to build a better future."
Last year, UHN had the privilege of hosting a residential school survivor who bravely shared her story at an in-person event at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, surrounded by staff who were there to respectfully listen, learn and have meaningful discussions.
As with so many events, this year's ceremony was a little different. In keeping with social distancing guidelines, the event, which was originally scheduled to take place in a courtyard at WCH, was relocated to the courtyard of the University of Toronto's Medical Education Department in order to accommodate the influx of people attending WCH's COVID-19 Assessment Centre.
The community joined a virtual honouring ceremony via Facebook Live, which included an opening and closing address by an Elder, Grandfather Drum and songs, and Jingle Dress Dancers to help with the healing process.
The inspiration for Orange Shirt Day came from residential school survivor Phyllis Jack Webstad, a Stswecem'c Xgat'tem First Nation elder in British Columbia.
Phyllis Jack was six years old when she arrived for her first day at school at St. Joseph Mission Residential School in 1973. She was dressed in her brand-new orange shirt, purchased by her grandmother for the occasion, and purposefully chosen by Phyllis to wear because, as she described decades later, it was "so bright and exciting – just like I felt to be going to school!"
Every Canadian asked to wear an orange shirt on Sept. 30
However, Phyllis Jack's excitement was short-lived. Her orange shirt was stripped from her upon arrival at the residential school where she would spend the next year, and replaced with the institution's uniform. The orange shirt was never returned to her.
Telling her story for the first time in 2013 as part of the inaugural Orange Shirt Day, Phyllis Jack recounted that moment and the lasting impact residential school had on her.
"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," Phyllis Jack says in background materials on the
Orange Shirt Day Website.
Since 2013, Orange Shirt Day has grown to become a national movement to recognize the experience of survivors of residential schools, honour them, and show a collective commitment to ensure that every child matters. The initiative calls for every Canadian to wear an orange shirt on Sept. 30 in the spirit of healing and reconciliation.
"Sept. 30 is not only an annual reminder of the legacy of the residential school system, but it is also a time for us to celebrate the resiliency and bravery of the survivors and their families," says Ashley Migwans, Regional Indigenous Cancer Program Coordinator, Toronto Regional Cancer Program, UHN.
"Today, many Indigenous peoples are reconnecting and reclaiming their culture, traditions, languages and communities, and are finding the strength to heal. It gives us an opportunity to reflect and keep the discussions going on all aspects of residential schools. We all have a part to play in acknowledging and learning our shared history, restoring relationships, and supporting and celebrating the resiliency of Indigenous peoples."
Residential schools operated across Canada between 1831 and 1996, with 150,000 children attending these schools over that period. Partial federal government records estimate that more than 6,000 children died while attending a residential school. Approximately 80,000 survivors of these schools are alive today.
In its comprehensive report in June 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada rebuked more than 100 years of Canada's Aboriginal policy, declaring the "establishment and operation of residential schools were a central element of this policy, which can best be described as "cultural genocide."
The Commission also stated that Canada needs to move from "apology to action" if reconciliation with Aboriginal Peoples is to succeed, making 94 recommendations for change in policies, programs and the "way we talk to, and about, each other."