Ultra Vires


Orange Shirt Day is Not a Metaphor

On reconciliation as a process

The sunset over Lake Couchiching. Credit: Rhea Murti

On the morning of Orange Shirt Day (September 30), I was able to turn my phone on just long enough to see that it had died at some point during the night and that it was currently 7:15am. Shit! I was late. I scrambled out of my tent and headed towards the Sunrise Ceremony. We were supposed to attend as part of the Indigenous Law in Context intensive, a four-day course in which students learned Indigenous law and legal traditions. The Sunrise Ceremony was open to community members, and many attendees were from the Chippewas of Rama Mnjikaning First Nation, our host community. By the time I arrived, the Ceremony had already begun, and I tried to diminish any possible interruption by quietly observing the Ceremony from a distance away with a student and a professor from Osgoode Hall Law School.

I felt awful. I had been invited into this community and to this ceremony to stand shoulder to shoulder with people from Rama as they continued to heal from the indescribable atrocities of the settler-colonial residential school system. Orange Shirt Day began in 2013. The choice to use orange shirts to symbolize remembrance of children who suffered at the hands of a racist system comes from the experiences of Phyllis Webstad. Phyllis is a member of Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation, whose personal possessions, including an orange shirt, were seized on arrival at residential school. The orange shirt is both representative of Indigenous children who had so much of their identity stripped away through colonial genocide and affirms that no such atrocity will be committed again. In this latter element, Orange Shirt Day is an active and decolonial practice. While people can easily accomplish the performative wearing of shirts, the requirement of a sincere commitment to prevent future harm can be a stumbling block.

What does Orange Shirt Day mean to me? To me, it was almost exactly what I did on that day. While I was too late to participate in the Sunrise Ceremony, it was a day full of opportunities to think about reconciliation in the context of land-based pedagogy. We had teachings on Anishinaabe law with Professor John Borrows, Wampum with Brian Charles, Anishinaabemowin with Vicki Snache, Quillwork with Dillon Bickel, and Lacrosse with Professor Samantha Craig-Curnow (abley filling in for her firefighter uncle, Joe), and ended our day with Anishinaabe stories told by Professor Borrows. Some of my colleagues also had the opportunity to attend a Sweat Lodge, another kind of ceremony in Anishinaabeg traditions. Every instructor and knowledge keeper was Anishinaabeg, including Professor Borrows. These individuals offered us an opportunity to both learn about the traditions of the Anishinaabeg peoples, on the land, and to be a part of their community for a short time. Not only were we offered the opportunity to learn about the people of Rama’s traditions, we were offered the chance to live in that community and to be part of that community, albeit for a short time.

What does Orange Shirt Day mean to me? When I returned to the law school, I was informed that some people felt that Orange Shirt Day on campus was lacklustre this year, and some felt that the intensive course overshadowed it. As a member of the University Affairs Board, this concerned me. Reconciliation falls under its mandate and it is responsible for reconciliation throughout the University. One step I learned the Faculty of Law is entertaining is moving the intensive course to avoid coinciding with Orange Shirt Day the next time it is run.

Respectfully, I would not support such a move. While planning for the intensive course may have led to some institutional blindness in the need to meaningfully implement reconciliation in pedagogy, I would not trade the opportunity to spend Orange Shirt Day in Rama for the kind of Orange Shirt Day event that academies typically offer. An invitation to witness a community’s trauma, healing, and care for one another, and to stand shoulder to shoulder in ceremony as part of their community, on their land, is a truly humbling experience that the Faculty, in my opinion, cannot deliver. I cannot speak for my colleagues who also attended, but spending Orange Shirt Day in Rama was transformative, and I hope I came out a better person for it.

What does Orange Shirt Day mean to me? I grew up without my culture; our heritage was a secret that my grandmother was forced to bear with shame. She didn’t get a chance to live in our culture until near the end of her life. Orange Shirt Day matters because this is, in some form or another, a universal story in our communities. We have experienced, and continue to experience, the worst of colonialism’s far-reaching and insidiously powerful impact while others benefitted and continue to benefit from our suffering. Orange Shirt Day matters because it is a statement: we can change nothing in the past, but we can do better for the future. Wearing an Orange Shirt is a commitment to ensuring that this future materializes. Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang wrote that “decolonization is not a swappable term for other things we want to do to improve our societies and schools.” If you wear the shirt, you accept the responsibility to effect that future.

So, why does Orange Shirt Day matter to me? For the same reasons that it matters to you.

Editor’s Note: Matthew Benoit is a member of the Indigenous Law Students’ Association. All views expressed are his own and formed according to his best understanding and intentions.

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