Why Do We Wear Orange on Canada Day?

by CiCi
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Canada Day, celebrated on July 1st, marks the anniversary of the confederation of Canada in 1867. Traditionally a day of patriotic festivities, parades, and fireworks, the celebration has evolved to include a deeper reflection on the nation’s history and its relationship with Indigenous peoples. In recent years, the wearing of orange on Canada Day has become a powerful symbol of solidarity, remembrance, and a call for reconciliation. This article explores the origins and significance of this practice, its impact on Canadian society, and the broader context of Indigenous relations and cultural awareness in Canada.

The Origins of Orange Shirt Day

Phyllis Webstad’s Story

The practice of wearing orange on Canada Day is deeply connected to the story of Phyllis Webstad, a Northern Secwepemc (Shuswap) woman. In 1973, at the age of six, Phyllis was sent to St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School in British Columbia. On her first day, she wore a bright orange shirt given to her by her grandmother. Upon arrival at the school, her shirt was taken from her, and she never saw it again. This experience left a lasting impact on Phyllis, symbolizing the loss of identity, culture, and dignity experienced by many Indigenous children forced into the residential school system.


The Creation of Orange Shirt Day

In 2013, Phyllis Webstad’s story inspired the creation of Orange Shirt Day, observed annually on September 30th. This day honors the survivors of residential schools and remembers the children who never returned home. The orange shirt has become a symbol of the stripping away of culture, freedom, and self-esteem experienced by Indigenous children over generations. Orange Shirt Day encourages Canadians to learn about the history and legacy of residential schools and to promote reconciliation and healing.


The Connection to Canada Day

Reconciliation and Reflection

As awareness of the injustices faced by Indigenous peoples has grown, so too has the recognition that Canada Day celebrations should include reflection on the country’s colonial history and its ongoing impact on Indigenous communities. The practice of wearing orange on Canada Day is a way to acknowledge this history and to honor the survivors and victims of the residential school system. It serves as a reminder that the nation’s history is complex and that true celebration must include recognition and reconciliation.

The Role of Truth and Reconciliation Commission

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada, established in 2008, played a significant role in bringing the stories of residential school survivors to light. The TRC’s final report, released in 2015, included 94 Calls to Action, urging all Canadians to engage in the process of reconciliation. One of these calls specifically addresses the need for public education and awareness about the history of residential schools and their legacy. Wearing orange on Canada Day aligns with these calls to action, fostering greater awareness and commitment to reconciliation.

The Significance of Wearing Orange

Solidarity with Indigenous Communities

Wearing orange on Canada Day is an act of solidarity with Indigenous communities, showing support for their ongoing struggles and recognition of their resilience. It sends a powerful message that Canadians are committed to understanding and addressing the injustices of the past and working towards a more inclusive and equitable future.

Honoring the Survivors and Remembering the Lost

The orange shirt symbolizes the stories of the survivors of residential schools and honors the children who never returned home. It is a visual representation of the collective commitment to remembering and acknowledging the pain and suffering endured by Indigenous families and communities.

Education and Awareness

By wearing orange, Canadians are prompted to educate themselves and others about the history of residential schools and the broader context of Indigenous rights and issues in Canada. It opens up conversations about the need for continued learning, understanding, and action to address the impacts of colonialism.

The Broader Context of Indigenous Relations in Canada

History of Residential Schools

Residential schools were part of a broader policy of assimilation aimed at eradicating Indigenous cultures and languages. From the late 19th century until the 1990s, over 150,000 Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and placed in these schools, where they often faced harsh conditions, abuse, and neglect. The legacy of these schools continues to affect Indigenous communities today, contributing to intergenerational trauma and systemic inequalities.

The Indian Act and Its Impact

The Indian Act of 1876 is another piece of legislation that has profoundly affected Indigenous peoples in Canada. It sought to control and assimilate Indigenous populations by imposing restrictions on their rights and freedoms. The Act has been amended several times, but many of its provisions continue to impact Indigenous communities, highlighting the need for ongoing legal and policy reforms.

Land Rights and Sovereignty

Land rights and sovereignty are central issues for many Indigenous communities. Historical treaties and agreements were often broken or ignored, leading to disputes over land and resources. Recognizing and respecting Indigenous land rights is crucial for reconciliation and the restoration of self-determination and cultural practices.

Cultural Revitalization and Resilience

Despite the many challenges faced, Indigenous communities have shown remarkable resilience and are actively engaged in cultural revitalization. Efforts to preserve and promote Indigenous languages, traditions, and knowledge are crucial for maintaining cultural identity and fostering pride among future generations.

The Role of Non-Indigenous Canadians

Allyship and Advocacy

Non-Indigenous Canadians have an important role to play in supporting Indigenous communities and advocating for their rights. This involves actively listening to and amplifying Indigenous voices, supporting initiatives led by Indigenous people, and challenging systems of oppression and inequality.

Learning and Unlearning

Education is a key component of reconciliation. Non-Indigenous Canadians are encouraged to learn about the history and contemporary issues affecting Indigenous peoples and to unlearn harmful stereotypes and biases. This involves engaging with Indigenous literature, attending events, and participating in educational programs.

Supporting Indigenous Businesses and Organizations

Supporting Indigenous businesses, artists, and organizations is another way to contribute to reconciliation. This helps to promote economic independence and sustainability within Indigenous communities and fosters greater understanding and appreciation of Indigenous cultures.

Moving Forward Together

Commemorative Events and Memorials

Commemorative events and memorials play an important role in honoring the history and contributions of Indigenous peoples. Initiatives like the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, observed on September 30th, and other local events provide opportunities for reflection, education, and community building.

Policy and Legislative Reforms

Addressing the systemic issues affecting Indigenous communities requires comprehensive policy and legislative reforms. This includes implementing the TRC’s Calls to Action, respecting land rights, improving access to healthcare and education, and ensuring justice and accountability for past and present injustices.

Building Relationships and Understanding

True reconciliation involves building meaningful relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples based on mutual respect and understanding. This requires ongoing dialogue, collaboration, and a commitment to addressing the root causes of inequality and discrimination.

See also: Why We Should Celebrate Canada Day


Wearing orange on Canada Day is a powerful symbol of remembrance, solidarity, and a commitment to reconciliation. It serves as a reminder of the complex history of Canada and the need to acknowledge and address the injustices faced by Indigenous peoples. By wearing orange, Canadians are not only honoring the survivors and victims of the residential school system but also pledging to work towards a more inclusive and equitable future. The journey of reconciliation is ongoing, and it requires the collective efforts of all Canadians to build a nation that respects and values the rights, cultures, and contributions of its Indigenous peoples.


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