National Day for Truth and Reconciliation

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Truth and Reconciliation Day
Orange Shirt Day (29804509710).jpg
Teachers in a Canadian school wearing orange shirts for Orange Shirt Day
Also calledOrange Shirt Day
TypeHistorical, memorial
SignificanceNational day to recognize the impact of the Canadian Indian residential school system
DateSeptember 30
First time2013 (Orange Shirt Day)
2021 (Truth and Reconciliation Day)
Started byPhyllis Webstad

The Truth and Reconciliation Day (French: Journée de la vérité et de la réconciliation), originally and still colloquially known as Orange Shirt Day (French: Jour du chandail orange),[1] is a Canadian statutory holiday to recognize the legacy of the Canadian Indian residential school system.

Orange Shirt Day was first established as an observance in 2013, as part of an effort to promote awareness and education of the residential school system and the impact it has had on Indigenous communities for over a century. The impact of the residential school system has been recognized as a cultural genocide, and continues to this day.[2]

The use of an orange shirt as a symbol was inspired by the accounts of Phyllis Jack Webstad, whose personal clothing—including a new orange shirt—was taken from her during her first day of residential schooling, and never returned. The orange shirt is thus used as a symbol of the forced assimilation of Indigenous children that the residential school system enforced.

The day was elevated to a statutory holiday by the Parliament of Canada in 2021,[3] and named the Truth and Reconciliation Day, in light of the revelations of over 1,000 unmarked graves near former residential school sites.[4] The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is a statutory holiday for federal government employees and private-sector employees to whom the Canada Labour Code applies; the governments of Manitoba, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and the Northwest Territories also added the day to their relevant employment legislation as an observance.[5]


Indian residential school system[edit]

Shortly after Confederation in 1867, the ministers in the new Cabinet of Canada inherited the responsibility of advising the Crown on the treaties signed between it and the First Nations of Canada. Prime Minister John A. Macdonald was faced with a country with disparate cultures and identities and wanted to forge a new Canadian identity to unite the country and ensure its survival. It was Macdonald's goal to absorb the First Nations into the general population of Canada and extinguish their culture.[6] In 1878, he commissioned Nicholas Flood Davin to write a report about residential schools in the United States. One year later, Davin reported that only residential schools could separate aboriginal children from their parents and culture and cause them "to be merged and lost" within the nation. Davin argued that the government should work with the Christian churches to open these schools.[7][8][9]

The schools aimed to eliminate Indigenous language and culture and replace it with English or French language and Christian beliefs. Pictured is Fort Resolution, NWT.

Beginning in 1883, the government began funding Indian residential schools across Canada, which were run primarily by the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Church; but also included the United Church of Canada, the Methodist Church, and the Presbyterian Church. When the separation of children from their parents was resisted, the government responded by making school attendance compulsory in 1894 and empowered the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to seize children from reserves and bring them to the residential schools. When parents came to take their children away from the schools, the pass system was created, banning Indigenous people from leaving their reserve without a pass from an Indian agent.[10]

Conditions at the schools were rough, as schools were underfunded and the infectious disease of tuberculosis was rampant. Over the course of the system's existence—more than a century long—approximately 150,000 children were placed in residential schools nationally. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada details deaths of approximately 3,200 children in residential schools, representing a 2.1% mortality rate.[11] However, Justice Murray Sinclair, the chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission later stated that they only included deaths of children that they had records for and that the true number of deaths could be as high as 6,000.[12]

Most of the recorded student deaths at residential schools took place before the 1950s. The most common cause of death was tuberculosis, which was also a common cause of death among children across Canada at that time;[13] but, students also died from other causes, including other diseases, fire, accident, drowning, and hypothermia, some of which occurred while running away from school. Some residential schools had mortality rates of 30% or more. The mortality rates at residential schools were much higher than the mortality rates of Canadian children as a whole. Many deaths were the result of neglect, as schools frequently denied basic medical care or assistance to their students until just before they died; in many cases, school staff did not bother searching for missing children until the next day.[12]

Comparative death rates per 1,000 for school aged children in Canada (1921–1965)

Dr. Peter Bryce reported to the Department of Indian Affairs in 1897 about the high student mortality rates at residential schools due to tuberculosis. Bryce's report was leaked to journalists, prompting calls for reform from across the country. Despite this public outcry, Bryce's recommendations were largely ignored.[14] Duncan Campbell Scott, the deputy superintendent of Indian Affairs from 1913 to 1932, who supported the assimilation policy said on 1910, "it is readily acknowledged that Indian children lose their natural resistance to illness by habitating so closely in these schools and that they die at a much higher rate than in their villages. But this alone does not justify a change in the policy of this Department, which is being geared towards the final solution of our Indian Problem." In 1914 he added, "the system was open to criticism. Insufficient care was exercised in the admission of children to the schools. The well-known predisposition of Indians to tuberculosis resulted in a very large percentage of deaths among the pupils."[15]

Many schools did not communicate the news of the deaths of students to the students' families, burying the children in unmarked graves; in one-third of recorded deaths, the names of the students who had died were not recorded.[12] In some schools, sexual abuse was common and students were forced to work to help raise money for the school. Students were beaten for speaking their indigenous languages.[9][16]

By the 1950s, the government began to relax restrictions on the First Nations of Canada and began to work towards shutting the schools down. The government seized control of the residential schools from the churches in 1969 and, by the 1980s, only a few schools remained open, with the last school closing in 1996.[17][18]

Truth and Reconciliation[edit]

In 1986, the United Church of Canada apologized for its role in the residential school system. The Anglican church followed suit in 1992. Some Catholic organizations have apologized for their role in the residential school system and, in 2009, Pope Benedict XVI expressed sorrow for the experiences of the residential school survivors, but the Roman Catholic Church had not formally apologized for its role in the residential school system. In 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked the Pope to issue an apology over its role in the Indian residential school system.[19][20]

In 1991, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples was formed to investigate the relationship between indigenous peoples in Canada, the government of Canada, and Canadian society as a whole. When its final report was presented five years later, it led the government to make a statement of reconciliation in 1998 and established the Aboriginal Healing Foundation.[18]

Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized in 2008, on behalf of the federal Cabinet, for the Indian residential school system and created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada to find out what happened at the schools. The commission released its final report in 2015, which found that the Indian residential school system was an act of "cultural genocide" against the First Nations of Canada,[18] as it disrupted the ability of parents to pass on their indigenous languages to their children, leading to 70% of Canada's Aboriginal languages being classified as endangered. It found that the deliberately poor education offered at the residential school system created a poorly educated indigenous population in Canada, which impacted the incomes those students could earn as adults and the educational achievement of their children and grandchildren, who were frequently raised in low-income homes. It also found that the sexual and physical abuse received at the schools created life-long trauma in residential school survivors, trauma and abuse which was often passed down to their children and grandchildren, which continues to create victims of the residential school system today.[18][21]


A banner advertising Orange Shirt Day flying in a Canadian town in 2021

The inspiration for Orange Shirt Day came from residential school survivor Phyllis Jack Webstad, who shared her story at a St. Joseph Mission (SJM) Residential School Commemoration Project and Reunion event held in Williams Lake, British Columbia, in the spring of 2013. Phyllis recounted her first day of residential schooling at six years old, when she was stripped of her clothes, including the new orange shirt her grandmother bought her, which was never returned. The orange shirt now symbolizes how the residential school system took away the indigenous identities of its students.[22][23][24][25][26] However, the association of the colour with the First Nations goes back to antiquity, the colour represents sunshine, truth-telling, health, regeneration, strength and power.[27][28]

Today, Orange Shirt Day exists as a legacy of the SJM Project, and September 30, the annual date of the event, signifies the time of year when Indigenous children were historically taken from their homes to residential schools. The official tagline of the day, "Every Child Matters", reminds Canadians that all peoples' cultural experiences are important.[23][25]

Education on the history of residential schools and their assimilation practices are also encouraged, drawing from Phyllis' experience in particular. For instance, many communities have held memorial walks, film screenings, and public lectures to raise awareness about Indigenous history.[29] Accordingly, school boards across Canada have begun to use this event to teach children about the system.[30]

Government recognition[edit]

Minister of Indigenous Services Jane Philpott and Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett in 2017 encouraged people across Canada to participate in this commemorative and educational event.[31] The following year, the Department of Canadian Heritage and Multiculturalism announced it was considering tabling a bill in parliament to establish a statutory holiday that recognized the legacy of residential schools; September 30 was one of the dates considered.[32] The Heritage Committee chose Orange Shirt Day and Georgina Jolibois submitted a private member's bill to the House of Commons, where it passed on March 21, 2019. However, the bill was unable to make it through the Senate before parliament was dissolved ahead of an election.[33][34]

During the subsequent parliamentary session, Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault tabled a new bill on September 29, 2020, proposing Orange Shirt Day become a national statutory holiday, similar to the previous proposal by Georgina Jolibois. The new holiday would be officially named the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.[35] On May 28, 2021, the day after it was reported that the remains of 215 bodies (now referred to as 200 "targets of interest" by Dr. Sarah Beaulieu who performed the search [36]) were discovered in an unmarked cemetery on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, all parties in the House of Commons agreed to fast-track the bill and it passed in the House of Commons by unanimous consent.[37][38] The bill passed the Senate unanimously six days later and received royal assent on June 3, 2021.[3]

On September 30, 2021, Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada, issued a message marking the day: "I join with all Canadians on this first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation to reflect on the painful history that Indigenous peoples endured in residential schools in Canada and on the work that remains to heal and to continue to build an inclusive society."[39][40]


National Day for Truth and Reconciliation was first observed as a federal holiday in 2021. On the first year it was observed, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had been invited to spend the day with the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc nation, near the place the first Indian residential school unmarked graves were discovered earlier that year. Trudeau ignored the invitation, and his schedule showed him having meetings in Ottawa that day. However, Trudeau instead took an unannounced private holiday in Tofino, British Columbia, attracting widespread criticism from the public and media alike.[41][42] Kúkpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir of the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc described his lack of attendance as a "gut punch to the community".[43]

Film and television[edit]

On October 11, 2020, CBC Television and the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network jointly aired Every Child Matters: Reconciliation Through Education, a television special produced by the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation to mark Orange Shirt Day by highlighting the stories of various residential school survivors.[4] The special received two Canadian Screen Award nominations at the 9th Canadian Screen Awards in 2021, for Best Children's or Youth Non-Fiction Program or Series and Best Picture Editing in a Factual Program or Series (Craig Anderson, Cathy Gulkin, James Kinistino and Ken Yan).[44]

Webstad was profiled in the 2021 documentary film Returning Home.[45]

In September 2021, CBC Television aired the documentary We Know the Truth: Stories to Inspire Reconciliation.[46]

Official shirts[edit]

The Orange Shirt Society was founded by the people involved in the creation of Orange Shirt Day, and is headquartered in Williams Lake, British Columbia.[47] Every year, they release an official Orange Shirt Day T-shirt, which features a design by an Indigenous artist and the tagline "Every Child Matters"; proceeds from the sales of the shirt go towards the Orange Shirt Society.[48][49]

In 2017, the supply of official orange shirts did not meet demand.[50] As a workaround, some communities created their own shirts. Designer Carey Newman made one that sold out in under two days.[51] Newman's father attended a residential school and his design commemorated this.

The Orange Shirt Society then approved of other Indigenous artists creating orange shirts. Their policy states that while they retain copyright over Orange Shirt Day, other people and organizations may make their own shirts provided that some of the profits go towards the Orange Shirt Society or other Indigenous charities and causes, and meet other technical requirements as stated on their website.[49][52]


  1. ^ "Témoignages". Permanent Committee on Canadian Heritage, House of Commons of Canada. November 8, 2018. Le Jour du chandail orange, en septembre, est une journée très importante qui gagne en popularité partout au pays.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  2. ^ Indian has been used because of the historical nature of the article and the precision of the name. It was, and continues to be, used by government officials, Indigenous peoples and historians while referencing the school system. The use of the name also provides relevant context about the era in which the system was established, specifically one in which Indigenous peoples in Canada were homogeneously referred to as Indians rather than by language that distinguishes First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples. Use of Indian is limited throughout the article to proper nouns and references to government legislation.
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  7. ^ Johnson, J.K.; Marshall, Tabitha (November 28, 2017). "Sir John A. MacDonald". The Canadian Encyclopedia. Anthony Wilson-Smith. Retrieved September 23, 2020.
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  22. ^ "Phyllis (Jack) Webstad's story in her own words..." Retrieved September 23, 2020.
  23. ^ a b "The Story of Orange Shirt Day". Retrieved September 23, 2020.
  24. ^ "Orange Shirt Day: How a 6-year-old's 1st day at residential school inspired a movement". CBC News. Retrieved October 19, 2017.
  25. ^ a b "Orange Shirt Day". Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre. University of British Columbia. Retrieved September 23, 2020.
  26. ^ Sinclair, Murray; Littlechild, Wilton; Wilson, Marie (2015). "The Survivors Speak" (PDF). Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Truth and Reconciliation Commission. pp. 39–45. Retrieved September 23, 2020.
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  28. ^ "Colors". First People.
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  31. ^ "Government of Canada Encourages Participation in Orange Shirt Day to Honour Residential Schools Survivors". Retrieved October 20, 2017.
  32. ^ "'Another step forward': Date of proposed holiday for reconciliation still needs to be set | CBC News". Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved October 24, 2018.
  33. ^ Hwang, Priscilla (March 27, 2019). "Truth and Reconciliation Day may be Canada's next new statutory holiday". Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved September 27, 2019.
  34. ^ Somos, Christy; Aiello, Rachel (June 21, 2019). "Indigenous stat holiday bill destined to die in Senate". Retrieved September 27, 2019.
  35. ^ Ballingall, Alex (September 29, 2020). "Liberal government tables bill to make Sept. 30 a national holiday to remember residential schools". The Toronto Star. Jordan Bitove. Retrieved October 7, 2020.
  36. ^ "Anthropologist explains how she concluded 200 children were buried at the Kamloops Residential School". The Globe and Mail.
  37. ^ Reynolds, Christopher (May 28, 2021). "MPs fast-track bill creating national day for truth and reconciliation". The Globe and Mail. Retrieved June 1, 2021.
  38. ^ "43rd PARLIAMENT, 2nd SESSION: JOURNALS, No. 106". House of Commons of Canada. May 28, 2021. Retrieved June 1, 2021.
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  40. ^ "The Queen's message to mark Canada's first National Day of Truth and Reconciliation". September 30, 2021.
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  43. ^ "Trudeau visits First Nation to apologise after holiday snub". BBC News. October 18, 2021. Retrieved January 29, 2022.
  44. ^ Brent Furdyk, "Television Nominees Announced For 2021 Canadian Screen Awards, 'Schitt's Creek' Leads The Pack With 21 Nominations". ET Canada, March 30, 2021.
  45. ^ Monica Lamb-Yorski, "Webstad documentary Returning Home premieres at UBC". Williams Lake Tribune, September 30, 2021.
  46. ^ John Doyle, "Stop, listen and watch: Stories to take in on Truth and Reconciliation Day"]. The Globe and Mail, September 30, 2021.
  47. ^ "Orange Shirt Society". Orange Shirt Society. Retrieved September 28, 2021.
  48. ^ "THE Official 2021 Orange Shirt Day t-shirt!!". Orange Shirt Society. Retrieved September 28, 2021.
  49. ^ "Orange Shirt Day movement growing, but shirts themselves can be hard to find". CBC News. Retrieved October 20, 2017.
  50. ^ "'Power of inspiration': Kwagiulth artist's Orange Shirt Day design sells out fast". CBC News. Retrieved October 20, 2017.
  51. ^ Stringer-Holden, Bridget (September 15, 2021). "Where to Purchase Orange Shirts by Indigenous Designers for the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation". Vancouver Magazine. Retrieved September 28, 2021.

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