The 30th of September was Orange Shirt Day in Canada.
What is orange shirt day?
The short version: a girl, Phyillis Webstad, was given an orange shirt by her grandmother for her first day of school at St. Joseph’s Mission residential school in British Columbia. For those not familiar, the residential school system operated in Canada between the 1870s and the 1990s. The last “Indian residential school” closed in 1996. Indigenous Children between the ages of 4-16 were forcibly removed from their families and taken to these schools that were operated by the Catholic Church, to be “educated into assimilation.” So When Phyllis got to school, they took away her clothes, including her new shirt. And it was never returned. Phyllis has said the colour orange has always reminded her of her experiences at residential school and, as she has said, “how my feelings didn’t matter, how no one cared and I felt like I was worth nothing. All of us little children were crying and no one cared.”
Residential schools were a heinous racist policy in Canada, and weren’t that long ago. On Orange shirt day we wear an orange shirt to show our support for truth and reconciliation and to show our solidarity with the survivors. It’s important not to just slap an orange shirt on your children and send them off to school without explanation. We need to talk to them about why or tell them Phyllis’ story, what the residential school system is, and how racism affects not just the people who it happens to but whole communities, and help them empathize with the victims- otherwise you’re a part of “performative activism.” It’s a big show. Wearing an orange shirt doesn’t help anyone any more than a black square does on Instagram. It’s the discussion that’s vital!
“To stay quiet is to side with the oppressor.”
We can’t be silent. We have to talk about these things intentionally with our children. On the whole we want our children to be shielded from scary, heinous things! Most of us were raised with the impression that if we don’t talk about it, if we focus on love and light, that the bad things will fade into the past never to be repeated. Only they are being repeated. It’s not going away by ignoring it! Ignoring it allows it to spread.
There are tools, like picture books, consider Orange Shirt Story by Phyllis Webstad. I was trying to figure out how to talk to my sons about this, and I finally hit on something that seemed to make it easier for them to empathize with, to put themselves in the shoes of the victims, and to understand why the descendants of the victims are still talking about it, and still don’t trust white people.
When we’re talking about these events with our kids, it’s important we talk to them at their level.
If they’re 3,4,5,6 we’re not going to get into the mechanics and politics of it because that’s just way over their head. Leave those aspects for when they’re older and can grasp those concepts. With little kids it’s really about sowing the seeds of empathy and helping them understand what that would feel like, and therefore why it should never be repeated.
I sat down with them and I explained that white people moved from Europe, took over the country and then decided that they didn’t like the people who already lived here (indigenous people). Then I switched it up. I told them that I wanted them to imagine that blue aliens came from outer space. They looked similar to us, but they dressed differently, spoke a different language, and they just showed up uninvited. They began taking over the world and decided that all humans had to live together, they forced us out of our house, and we had to go live in a different house with only other humans. Then, one day, a blue alien showed up at our door and said that they were going to take them, the kids, to a school to live. And when they got there, they were going to take all their things, make them eat rotten food, sleep in cold dormitories, and they might not let the two of them stay together. I said imagine they would hit them any time they spoke English or cried or didn’t behave the way they wanted them to behave. They wouldn’t let them see Mommy or Daddy except maybe once a year.
I explained that this did happen, but the people who came from Europe were white, like us. And they took the kids from the indigenous communities that were here before us, they put them in a residential school, and they did all those things to them. My 6 year old said “but then why would an indigenous kid trust white people? I don’t think they would.” And I told him, you’re right. I don’t think they would either.
Empathy and relevance made them put themselves in the shoes of the victims.
We talked about how we wear Orange Shirts on September 30th to show Indigenous people that we support them, and we will remember what happened and won’t do it again. And they both swore up and down they’d NEVER do that. And then we talked a bit about how we could help indigenous children feel safe around white people.
This whole discussion took maybe 20 minutes. My sons’ teacher commented on their orange shirts and asked the boys if they could tell the other kids why they were wearing the shirts. They did with surprising clarity, because it’s a lot easier to remember information when you experience it, even if you’ve only experienced it in your imagination.
This can apply to any historical racist event. Make the white aggressors another colour, but not a skin-tone adjacent colour, so a pink, blue, or purple. And put them in the role of the victim. Then introduce the actual story, and remind them- you’re white. You look like the aggressors. So even if you didn’t do it, you look like the people who did. And that is enough to make the victims and the descendants of the victims not trust you.
What can we do to make them feel safe?
It all comes back to safety. If we don’t feel safe, we can’t grow.
I hope that gives you an idea of how to make conversations about historical events relevant and relatable to young kids without getting caught in the weeds of the details that are over their heads. I didn’t talk about the role of the Catholic Church, and I didn’t talk about reservations in depth, or the politics – all of those are details I’ll fill in as they get a bit older and can understand those subjects. Focus on the overarching story, and connecting with details at their level, from their perspective.