Orange Shirt Day, marked each Sept. 30, should not only be observed as a holiday, it’s worthy of celebration, says Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. President Aluki Kotierk.
Although the day represents the legacy of residential schools, it also symbolizes the triumph of the Inuit people over a colonial government’s attempts at assimilation.
“Despite your public policies to try and eliminate us as a culture, as a people, we are all still here as Indigenous peoples and you’re going to see us brightly, proudly wearing orange on this day to kind of be in your face and say, ‘Your genocidal, colonial policies did not work,’” Kotierk says. “My preference would be to have a celebratory day, similar to Nunavut Day. I was so pleased that (Nunavut Day) became a statutory holiday because, to me, it celebrates how Inuit were persistent and able to achieve the signing of the Nunavut Agreement on July 9 (1993) and have it get assent in Canadian Parliament.”
Orange Shirt Day, which began in 2013, came about through the story of Phyllis Webstad, a residential school survivor from British Columbia whose orange shirt was confiscated during her first day of school in 1973.
Former NDP member of Parliament Georgina Jolibois, from Saskatchewan, tabled a private member’s bill in 2017 to make Orange Shirt Day a national holiday. Although the bill passed third reading and was forwarded to the Senate, the holiday still isn’t official.
Nunavut MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq would like to see it enacted.
“Yes it should be a holiday, but that isn’t enough. We need concrete action as well,” Qaqqaq says.
Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, an organization that advocates for Inuit across Canada, has had conversations with the federal government regarding a national holiday to recognize the legacy of residential schools, but it hasn’t been specific to Orange Shirt Day.
Iqaluit-Niaqunnguu MLA Pat Angnakak says she would prefer to see such a holiday fall under Aboriginal Day. Like Kotierk, she believes it should have a celebratory tone.
“I feel celebrating being Indigenous also celebrates the fact that people, culture and language can overcome such horrors… it speaks to the strength and will power to those who have overcome or in the midst of trying to overcome the trauma placed on them and their families,” Angnakak stated. “I think that it’s important for all Canadians to be aware of what has happened to Inuit and other Indigenous people when it comes to the residential school experience, but I think it’s equally important for all Canadians to see the resiliency and the working towards taking control of one’s future is to be celebrated in light of what’s happened.”
Aggu MLA Paul Quassa, former premier of Nunavut and once president of NTI, says he too approves of the idea of a holiday.
“A lot of these individuals (who attended residential school) are long gone. I think it becomes a memory of what took place in the past and I think we always have to keep that in our hearts, of course, but not to get us down,” Quassa says. “I think (a holiday) would be great because it will again show part of the history of Nunavut and I think it’s important for our future generations to know that. This is one way of keeping that history alive.”