Learning About Orange Shirt Day with Young Children

Every child matters.

These words emblazoned on an orange shirt are striking and true. They honor the story of Phyllis (Jack) Webstad who was just 6 years old when she attended one of the residential schools in Canada. On her very first day she wore a shiny new orange shirt her grandmother had bought for her, she was happy and excited to be going to school. However, when she arrived at the mission they stripped her and took her clothes away, including her very special shirt. It was never returned to her. Phyllis felt sad and hurt, but what was worse was the fact that her feelings didn’t seem to matter at all to the adults around her.  (orangeshirtday.org)

“The color 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. All of us little children were crying and no one cared.” – Phyllis (Jack) Webstad   (orangeshirtday.org)

Each year on Orange Shirt Day I share Phyllis’s story with the children in my class. It gives the little ones a glimpse of some of the terrible things that took place in the residential schools from a child’s perspective.

It may seem like a difficult subject to approach with such young children but we have a responsibility to share the truth with our students about what happened to First Nations, Métis and Inuit children at the residential schools in ways that are age appropriate and consider their developmental level. Discussing the residential schools and those harmed by them in terms that children can grasp supports understanding and empathy.

The children in my program are very little so we use a lot of stories to explain the narratives of different cultures and people in our country and around the world. Many children’s stories have been written that talk about the history of the residential schools in simple ways that are easily understood by little ones.

Some of the books we’ve read about residential schools include;

Shi-shi-etko by Nicola Campbell
This is a story about a little girl leaving for a residential school; she spends the day before she leaves taking in her family’s teachings to protect her while she is away from home.

Kookum’s Red Shoes by Peter Eyvindson
In this story a grandmother recounts her time in the residential schools and how it affected her whole life.

The children and I spend time discussing how the First Nations, Métis and Inuit little ones must have felt being so far away from their home and being forbidden to use their own languages or practice their cultures. We talk about how the teachers were unkind to the children in the residential schools and it makes us feel very sad for them; no child should be treated harshly of be made to feel like they don’t matter.

Orange Shirt Day is set aside to reflect on the residential schools and to empathize with the First Nations, Métis and Inuit children who were so deeply impacted by their cruel practices. We learn Phyllis’s story because she explains in a very concrete way that something was taken from her and from all of the children in the residential schools; their material possessions, their languages and cultural practices. We remember and learn together to prevent this atrocity from ever happening again, but our work as educators doesn’t end with one conversation, one story, or one day. We must cultivate inclusion in our classroom, foster kindness, and ensure that our learning environments represent different cultures, races, and a rainbow of different human experiences because every child matters.

A special thank you to Joan Sorley, the director of the Orange Shirt Society, for taking the time to read this over for me before it was published.