Orange Shirt Day is recognized each year on September 30. Check your local area for activities so you can participate in acknowledging Residential School survivors. As of 2021, the Canadian government has declared September 30 a day of National Truth and Reconciliation.
It is important to educate everyone about Canada’s wrongs so we can learn from them. We need to repair the damage that has been done. We have searched out some student-friendly resources teachers can use in their classrooms to teach students about Residential Schools because Every Child Matters. Keep reading to get a list of resources you can use in your classroom.
What is Orange Shirt Day?
Orange Shirt Day is a day to think about the many students who were taken from their families to be colonized. Students placed in Residential Schools were not allowed to speak their native languages, practice their spiritual beliefs, wear their own cultural outfits, or even wear their hair as their ancestors did. The purpose of Residential Schools was to “kill the Indian.” It was cultural genocide.
Students had trouble returning to their communities when their schooling was finished (if they survived). They did not speak the language or know the people. Entire families and communities were wiped out. And those students that survived were considered lucky just to have survived. Many students never returned home after dying at the schools.
Phyllis Webstad (nee Jack) started Orange Shirt Day. Excited to go to her new school she bought a new orange shirt to wear for the first day of school. Upon arriving at school her new shirt and all her other belongings were taken away and never given back. That orange shirt now symbolizes remembering the wrongs that all students in Residential Schools endured.
Orange Shirt Day is more important than ever after the confirmation of bodies found at the Kamloops Residential School on Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc land. While 215 is the number many are mourning, we all know there are many more. Currently, thousands have been located and the process continues. We need to stay committed to finding them all.
National Day of Truth and Reconciliation
In June 2021, the Canadian government passed legislation to declare a “National Day for Truth and Reconciliation”, to be observed on September 30, beginning in 2021. It fulfills the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Call to Action #80: “to establish, as a statutory holiday, a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation to honour Survivors [of Residential Schools], their families, and communities, and ensure that public commemoration of the history and legacy of residential schools remains a vital component of the reconciliation process.” Therefore, the acknowledgement of this day is important to teach to all students in Canada.
Should teachers teach about Residential Schools?
Absolutely. Students should know our collective history. All of it. It is our chance to learn from mistakes.
Teachers need to approach the subject tenderly, honestly, and with age-appropriate information. We need to teach this content while we wait for provincial and territorial governments to rewrite curricula to include Residential Schools from kindergarten through Grade 12.
Remember that your students may be new to learning about Residential Schools. We ask that you preview all materials you plan to use. Think about how you will answer tough questions-like the different types of abuse students suffered-so that you have answers prepared for the learning age and maturity of your students.
While it is important to be honest with students, it is also important to give them age appropriate answers. Avoid “sanitizing” the truth. Not speaking the truth is part of the reason Residential Schools and their history has been so unknown to most Canadians.
Education is one of the calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. You can read all the calls to action here.
What resources are available to teach students about Residential Schools?
Here are some materials we’ve located for elementary-aged children.
First Nations Child & Family Caring Society of Canada: The materials on the bottom portion of the page are best for young students.
Phyllis’s Story: The Original Story About Orange Shirt Day
St. Joseph’s Residential School Stories: A YouTube Video
And we found this video was one of the ones our students responded to. Every Child Matters
What are some books to read to and with students about Residential Schools?
Ask your local librarian to search for these books so they can be part of your school library. Many are available online. Some have recordings of the authors reading them. Please only use the audio versions created by the authors. This way authors and publishers get paid for their hard work.
Our booklists do not include affiliate links. We encourage you instead to shop at your local bookstore. Ask them to bring in more diverse books for the members of your community. Shopping local is also good for the environment and supports your local economy.
For younger students:
When I Was Eight by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton
Arctic Stories by Michael Kusugak
Kookum’s Red Shoes by Peter Evyindson
I Am Not a Number by Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer
Shi-shi-etko by Nicola Campbell
Shin-chi’s Canoe by Nicola Campbell
Stolen Words by Melanie Florence
When We Were Alone by David Alexander Robinson
Phyllis’s Orange Shirt by Phyllis Webstad
The Train by Jodie Callaghan
I’m Finding My Talk by Rebecca Thomas
For older students:
The Orange Shirt Story by Phyllis Webstad
The Secret Path by Gord Downie and Jeff Lemire
Fatty Legs: A True Story by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton
A Stranger at Home: A True Story by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton
No Time to Say Good-bye: Children’s Stories of Kuper Island Residential Schools by Sylvia Olsen
As Long as the Rivers Flow by Larry Loyie
My Name is Seepeetza by Shirley Sterling
Dear Canada: These Are My Words by Ruby Slipperjack
They Called Me Number One by Bev Sellars
Sugar Falls: A Residential School Story (Graphic Novel) by David Alexander Robinson
Red Wolf by Jennifer Dance
Totem by Jennifer Maruno
Good For Nothing by Michel Noel
The Red Files by Lisa Bird-Wilson (poetry)
The Boy Who Walked Backwards by Ben Sures
I Lost My Talk by Rita Joe
Ends/Begins by David Alexander Robertson
The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline
For Some More Learning For Teachers:
Truth and Reconciliation in Canadian Schools by Pamela Rose Toulouse
Speaking Our Truth: A Journey of Reconciliation by Monique Gray Smith
They Came for the Children by The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada You can find this document on this webpage.
Behind Closed Doors: Stories from the Kamloops Indian Residential School by Jack Agnes
Residential Schools, With the Words and Images of Survivors: A National History by Larry Loyie, Wayne K. Spear, and Constance Brissenden
Calling Down the Sky by Rosanna Deerchild
Northern Wildflower by Catherine Lafferty
Mamaskatch by Darrel McLeod
They Called Me Number One by Bev Sellars
Orange Shirt Day by the Orange Shirt Society (published by Orca Publishers or Medicine Wheel Education)
Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada by the Royal Canadian Geographic Society
Broken Circle by Theodore Fontaine
What are some other activities that can be done to observe Orange Shirt Day?
- Wear orange shirts.
- Hold an assembly. Do this online if you cannot be together.
- Have door greeters ask students to sign a pledge to always remember.
- Get students to decorate orange shirts and wear them for the event.
- Hold a drum circle. Watch one online if you cannot be together.
- Have students learn about Residential Schools and tell others what they’ve learned.
- Paint rocks n remembrance of the children who never came home.
- Invite your local Elders to come to talk about their experiences.
- Invite Residential School survivors to share their stories. Here is some useful information about how to go about that and what you should know before making contact.
- Read a book.
- Read some of the calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Look to see what you and your students can commit to doing. We recommend sending letters to our government leaders asking for their support for Indigenous People. In particular, look at the calls to action related to health and education.
- Fundraise to support a charity that supports Residential School survivors and their families.
- Take a moment to think about how we can support Indigenous People across Canada now.
- Visit First Nations Child & Family Caring Society for educational resources for your class
- Use educational resources from the National Centre for Truth and Reconcilliation.
Learn About Indigenous People in the Past and the Present
We’ve created a few simple pages you can use with your students. You can find them in our store for free. Students can make paper orange shirts. They can make a pledge to remember.
Last year, every student in our school made a paper shirt. We covered a whole wall with the pledges. It was very moving to read all the comments and look at everything students wrote and drew. They definitely learned a lot about Residential Schools and their impact on our world today. Most promised to never allow Residential Schools to open again. Several wanted to learn more about Indigenous People to feel more connected to them.
We try to teach our students about Indigenous culture all year round. If you’re looking for more ideas, you can check out this blog post: Bring Indigenous Culture into Your Lessons.
More Activities for Orange Shirt Day (or any time of year)
With your orange shirts on, go for a walk around your neighbourhood. If your school is in an area where there might a chance to educate others, have your students do the talking and educating. People listen to kids. Let them use their voices.
Have you heard of or participated in the Kairos Blanket Exercise? It is an eye-opening emotional activity to understand the difficulties faced by the Indigenous People when the Europeans arrived. You can find information on their website.
If these activities are not available to you as an option, you can try this drama circle we created. We wrote it for our students in simple language we knew they would be able to understand. It talks about how life was before the settlers arrived, how life changed after the settlers arrived and why it’s important to move forward through truth and understanding.
Include games and activities that are part of Indigenous culture. An example of this is the Bone Game which can be found in our Resource Library or we can send you a copy when you sign up for our email list.
All of the above activities are important for honouring and respecting the damage done by Residential Schools, but the work is only just beginning.
Learning about Residential Schools shouldn’t be restricted to a single day or lesson. Students should learn about how Indigenous People have been impacted by colonization throughout the history of Canada. Weave this learning into your history lessons, art lessons, and conversations so that the next generation will know and understand the impact of colonization on the people who called this land home first.
Check out some of our other book lists:
Books by Indigenous Authors
Books for Holi Festival of Colours
Christmas Books We Love
Lunar New Year
Books to Teach Social Emotional Learning
Cozy Up With Great Winter Books
Books for Asian History Month
Books You’ll Love With LGBTQ+ Characters
Black History Books
Books For and About Powerful Women
Do you have other ideas of how you’ve observed Orange Shirt Day? Let us know in the comments below and we’ll add them to our list.