A reflection from the moderator, the Rev. Amanda Currie
I plan to wear an orange shirt on September 30, not because I particularly like the colour orange, but because I want to remember and honour the Indigenous children who attended Indian Residential Schools, including those operated by The Presbyterian Church in Canada.
Orange Shirt Day began in 1973 when six-year-old Phyllis Webstad entered the St. Joseph Mission Residential School in B.C. Young Phyllis was wearing a brand new orange shirt for her first day of school—new clothes being a rare and wonderful thing for a First Nation girl growing up in her grandmother’s care—but the Mission Oblates quickly stripped her of her new shirt and replaced it with the school’s institutional uniform. (Visit orangeshirtday.org for the full story about Phyllis Webstad and her experience.)
The loss of an orange shirt was by no means the worst thing that happened to an Indigenous child in the Indian Residential School System, but it has become symbolic of all that was taken from the children—their language, culture, family and community relationships, safety, security, and identity; sometimes even their lives. When we wear orange shirts, talk about why we are wearing them and participate in reconciliation events and activities, we help to create awareness of the individual, family and community inter-generational impacts of Indian Residential Schools, and we witness to the truth that “Every Child Matters.”
The gospels give us a picture of Jesus as one who respected and cared for children. He healed and helped children who were sick, welcomed the contributions of a boy who offered to share his lunch, and blessed the children who gathered around him as he taught the crowds. Although the church’s intention has likely always been to care for children as Jesus did, our participation in the Indian Residential School System was so misguided that it contributed to the abuse of generations of children who attended the schools. Its inter-generational effects continue to harm Indigenous children today.
The Presbyterian Church in Canada ran 11 Residential Schools in British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Ontario. Following Church Union in 1925, the PCC retained responsibility for two schools: Birtle Residential School in Birtle, Manitoba and Cecilia Jeffrey Residential School, first located in Shoal Lake, Ontario and relocated to Kenora, Ontario. Responsibility for all other schools formerly held by the PCC was transferred to the newly formed United Church of Canada.
In addition to wearing an orange shirt on September 30, I would encourage you to learn about the schools that were run by our church and to read and reflect on our church’s 1994 Confession regarding our participation in the Residential School System.
Take some time to listen to the voices of Residential School Survivors as they courageously reflect on their experiences in the schools and the impact they had on their lives, families and communities.
Although the church made our confession over 26 years ago, this is not ancient history that we can ignore or forget about. Indigenous people in Canada continue to be impacted by the legacy of the schools, and the massive numbers of Indigenous children who are in the child welfare system is startling. The Government of Canada reports that Indigenous children represent 52.2% of children in foster care in private homes in Canada, but account for only 7.7% of the overall child population. They also note that the first five Calls to Action by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission relate to child welfare. These Calls include a commitment to reduce the number of Indigenous children who are in care, to affirm the right of Aboriginal governments to establish and maintain their own child-welfare agencies, to require that placements into care be culturally appropriate, and to develop culturally appropriate parenting programs for Indigenous families. There is much work yet to be done to respond to these Calls to Action.
On September 30, consider wearing an orange shirt and participating in a reconciliation event or activity in your area or online. After September 30, consider making a donation to the Healing and Reconciliation Fund of our church or to one of the Indigenous Ministries, volunteer your time with one of the ministries, and look for other ways to build relationships with some of the people who are suffering the inter-generational effects of the schools.
Let’s follow the example of Jesus by enacting our conviction that “Every Child Matters” and pray for a world where it becomes a lived reality. The following prayer was shared in a KAIROS Spirited Reflection for Orange Shirt Day in 2018 .
It follows after a reflection by Vivian Ketchum, a residential school survivor who attended Cecilia Jeffrey School, and a member of The Presbyterian Church in Canada.