Sept. 30 marks Orange Shirt Day in Canada. It’s an annual occasion that asks people across the country to wear orange shirts in honour of residential school survivors like Phyllis Webstad, whose harrowing experience of anti-Indigenous assimilation inspired the day.
Because it’s 2020, Orange Shirt Day is happening in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is impacting Indigenous communities severely. This is in addition to pre-existing wrongs faced by Indigenous people: A mental health epidemic, the child welfare system crisis and “medical colonialism” continue to afflict communities. The recent deaths of a youth in care and Joyce Echaquan are just some of countless glaring examples of just how dire these issues are.
To show love to survivors and solidarity with Indigenous youth, people are pairing their orange shirts with special face masks — an accessory that’s not only very visible, but also promotes virus prevention.
Orange Shirt Day face masks carry deep personal meaning
The Beauchamp family from Ottawa were proud to wear shirts stating “Every Child Matters” in English and French, along with their handmade patterned face masks.
Traditions are significant for the family. Todd Beauchamp, who is Algonquin and Atikamekw, said previous generations paid a steep price to avoid the traumatizing residential school system: They left their communities and hid their cultural practices.
Beauchamp told HuffPost Canada that this year, his family wanted their outfits to honour the Indigenous children taken from their homes and express pride in their heritage, while also respecting public health guidelines.
“The masks were made by my mother and represent the matrilineal traditions of our Algonquin ancestors,” Beauchamp said.
Port Hawkesbury, N.S. resident Bryson Syliboy — who goes by he/him pronouns, as well as the Mi’kmaw gender-neutral pronoun Nekm — coordinated his look with a homemade orange face mask, emblazoned with a stripe saying “Every Child Matters.”
“This was my outfit today for work in honour of my mother and relatives that attended the Residential Schools,” Syliboy captioned a photo on Instagram.
Syliboy also carried a skillet, to pay tribute to his grandmother’s defence of her children from the Canadian government’s “Indian Agents,” a historic term for the men who forcibly removed Indigenous children from their homes.
Many of the masks, including those commissioned by the Saskatoon Survivors Circle, feature the common phrase “Every Child Matters,” to remind people that residential school survivors were made to feel worthless through the government’s policies and practices.
A postcard that accompanies the circle’s mask explains the meaning of the illustration: “It describes the interconnectivity between people and nature.”
And as CBC News reported, residential school survivors like Betsy Head, a recently retired grandmother from Opaskwayak Cree Nation, have been commissioned to make face masks for fellow survivors.
Other people have used their mask designs to prompt others to learn more about Indigenous issues. Students from Vancouver’s Mulgrave school wore masks with phrases like “Indian Act” and “Red Paper,” as part of an Orange Shirt Day campaign.
Face masks themselves are also being dressed up with themed items. Newmarket, Ont. business owners Madeline and Charlotte Kilpatrick of Kilpatrick Sister Creations made a face mask chain for the occasion, with proceeds going to domestic abuse awareness.
Don’t own an orange shirt or an orange face mask? Beadwork artists like Yukon-based Vashti Etzel of GoldenEye Designs have also made pins of orange shirts that can show support too.
However you wear orange on Sept. 30, it’s important that the spirit of the occasion is recognized and that everyone who participates does their part to ensure the continued safety of Indigenous children year-round.
Also on HuffPost Canada: