This year Orange Shirt Day coincides with the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation—a new federal statutory holiday that recognizes the colonial legacy of residential schools while honouring Indigenous survivors.
Although schools will be closed on September 30, events are still planned for students to recognize Orange Shirt Day and learn about the legacy of residential schools.
Dave Maher, School District 70 (SD70) Indigenous education worker and principal, said SD70 has been working with the Haaḥuupc̓amis Cultural Council, Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council (NTC) and individual communities to plan how to honour and learn about the upcoming Day of Truth and Reconciliation.
He said the SD70 Indigenous Education Department has created a series of lessons to be introduced in classrooms prior to the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, as well as throughout the year.
“We believe that Orange Shirt Day, or the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, is a day to honour and a day to acknowledge both the truth aspects of the day, particularly with acknowledgement of residential schools, but also the reconciliation piece,” Maher said. “The day is meant for honouring and acknowledging but the entire year we need to engage in acts of understanding, acts of learning about truth and reconciliation.”
In consultation with the Haaḥuupc̓amis Cultural Council, Hupacasath First Nation, Tseshaht First Nation and NTC, SD70 will be honouring the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation with a ceremonial renaming of AW Neill Elementary to c̓uumaʕas Tsuma-as Elementary School. Tsuma-as (pronounced SOO-mahs) is the Nuu-chah-nulth name for the Somass River.
School District 70 board members voted unanimously to rename the school in 2020 because of claims that Alan Webster Neill, who was an Alberni mayor, a member of the B.C. Legislature and an MP for Comox-Alberni from 1921-1945, was involved in the operation of the Alberni Indian Residential School.
Neill had also been vocally racist toward people of Asian heritage and made multiple efforts in the House of Commons to deny voting rights to Asian immigrants.
Before changing the name, the school board thoroughly consulted with the school’s PAC and students and elected officials from the Tseshaht and Hupacasath First Nations. The new name hasn’t officially been placed on the outside of the building yet and the renaming event on September 29 will be ceremonial.
“We will be hosting a renaming ceremony at c̓uumaʕas Tsuma-as Elementary School starting at 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 29,” Maher said. “This event will be live streamed out to all SD70 schools and will be available for all community members who prefer to watch from their homes rather than be physically present.”
Maher said SD70 wanted to ensure the ceremony was done in the correct way, so they’ve requested the presence of the hereditary chiefs and elected leadership from the Tseshaht and Hupacasath First Nations. He added that Jean Thomas, Nuu-chah-nulth education worker and Tseshaht elder will be hosting the event and guiding guests through the cultural protocols for the ceremony.
Maher said he’s happy there’s now a stat holiday to recognize truth and reconciliation, topics SD70 Indigenous education workers have been teaching to all grade levels over the past several years.
He said that leading up to September 30, different concepts around truth and reconciliation will be taught to all SD70 students.
“Our K to Grade 3 students will talk about family, the importance of family and then explore a concept of loss or loss of family and how that feels,” Maher said. “For our intermediate students, we’ll start getting into a more historical understanding of what residential schools were, what the Indian Act is and many challenges that are faced in provinces across Canada and the cities we live in.”
For the senior grades, Maher said it becomes far more of a truth telling event to ensure there’s awareness of the absolute tragedies that occurred locally and throughout the country.
Maher said SD70 with the NTC have purchased a large number of orange shirts so that students and staff will be able to access them. He encourages everyone to wear orange on September 29 when school is in session and to the name unveiling event on September 30.
“We encourage everyone to have on orange shirts as a demonstration of acknowledgement of
truth and reconciliation and as acknowledgment of Orange Shirt Day to bring awareness for healing for all,” he said.
On the west coast, students from Ucluelet Secondary School will be able to view the museum exhibit ‘Escaping Residential Schools’ from the Legacy of Hope Foundation. The exhibit will be available at the school from Sept. 24 to Oct.1.
Jason Sam, Nuu-chah-nulth education worker, said he’s working with three classes at Ucluelet Secondary School to develop student-lead content to supplement the exhibit.
“Specifically, our Art 9/10 class is learning about Orange Shirt Day, learning how to design and screen print our own orange shirts in school. These will be displayed alongside a write-up of the students’ meaning behind the design,” Sam said in an email. “Our Literary Studies 11 class will be learning about truth and reconciliation and the 94 Calls to Action. They will then research specific calls to action, and do a project for the exhibit. Our BC First Peoples 12 class will be researching specific Indian Residential Schools in B.C. and will be completing projects for the exhibit.”
Sam said all students in the school will attend the exhibit and that it’s open to Grade 6 and 7 students from both Ucluelet Elementary and Wickaninnish Community School. It will also be open to the public for limited viewing from Sept. 29 to Oct.1.
For School District 84, events leading up to September 30 are also planned.
Lawrence Tarasoff, SD84 superintendent, said all students from Gold River Secondary will be visiting Yuquot for activities on Sept. 29 and that both Ray Watkins Elementary and Captain Meares Elementary Secondary plan to join other schools across Canada for a series of activities organized by The Virtual Orange Shirt Day Assembly.
Tim Huttemann, principal of Zeballos Elementary Secondary School, said they are also attending the virtual assembly on Sept. 29.
“We’ll be pairing the high school kids with the elementary kids to make ‘All Kids Matter’ orange shirts in the Nuu-chah-nulth language and we’ll have some additional in-school events planned by the teachers,” Huttemann said.
Huttemann added that in addition to the shirt making and assembly, the school will also be participating in activities all week prior to Orange Shirt Day including flying an orange flag on the flagpole all week, in-class discussions and a virtual presentation from an Indigenous NBA basketball player.