September 30, 2014 is the second annual Orange Shirt Day. The day grew out of a residential school commemoration event held in Williams, Lake BC in Spring 2013. During this event Phyllis (Jack) Webstad, a Survivor of the St. Joseph Mission Residential School described her experience of arriving at the residential school and having an orange shirt that was bought for her by her grandmother taken away from her.
Speaking about her experience Phyllis said that “the colour 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 complete story can be viewed here.
As a result of Phyllis’ experience and the 2013 commemoration event Orange Shirt Day was created as a way to inspire conversation around residential schools and reconciliation. Similar to the anti-bullying pink shirt campaigns, the Orange Shirt Day/Every Child Matters campaign encourages people to wear orange and begin discussing the issues behind the cause. Many school boards across Canada are using this as an opportunity to begin discussions of residential schools in their classrooms. More information about Orange Shirt Day can be found on their website and facebook page.
The past couple of weeks have been filled with government apologies for historical wrongs. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Air India, and Bloody Sunday Inquiry have all been prominent in the news recently.
What significance do public apologies for historic wrongs have? Government apologies have the potential to remind the general public of events long past. It is unlikely that people directly impacted by Bloody Sunday or the residential school system are going to forget the horror of these events. However, people not alive during these events or who have not felt the repercussion of them can easily forget the past. Public apologies, inquires, and general discussion about past wrongs bring events back into public view and help raise awareness regarding atrocities and past mistakes. For years, the issue of residential schools was glossed over in public schools. In recent years a movement towards acknowledgment of past wrongs has contributed to an increase in educating Canadians at large about this moment in our past.
However, apologies are often about controlling the collective memory of a particular event. Apologies for historic wrongs are often politically motivated and can be seen as a step towards reconciliation. Apologies add another dimension to the history of a particular events. It allows the government to be seen as taking proactive action against the past.
Is an apology sufficient when an entire community was wronged? Of course not. Is it a step in the right direction to addressing the problem? Perhaps. They can be a starting point for reconciliation but apologies need to be accompanied by actual action.
For another look at government sponsored apologies see Laura Madokoro’s post “Giving Voice To History” on activehistory.ca