Orange Shirt Day fundraisers support many services for residential school survivors, families

Sept. 30 is Orange Shirt Day, which is both a chance to spread awareness about Canada’s residential school system and give back to survivors, their families and communities through fundraising efforts.

'We want to make sure that people don’t forget that it was a part of the Canadian history'

Proceeds from the Anishinaabek Educational Institute’s orange shirt campaign this year will be donated to the St. Anne’s residential school survivors' legal defence. (Sara Cornthwaite)

Orange Shirt Day, observed on Sept. 30, is a day for spreading awareness about Canada's residential school system and as a day to honour residential school survivors and their families.

The day is named for the bright orange shirt given to six-year-old Phyllis Webstad by her grandmother in 1973, which she wore to her first day at St. Joseph Mission School in Williams Lake, B.C. The school administrators took it from her.

Shirt sales are often used as fundraising initiatives for services for survivors, their families and communities. 

Brianna Olsen Pitawanakwat, a member of Wikwemikong Unceded First Nation currently living in Toronto, along with her partner Nanook Gordon, has created silk-screened orange shirts with a portion of the sales going to Toronto Indigenous Harm Reduction (TIHR), a collective the two started. 

"It is important for us to acknowledge that we are intergenerational survivors as well and to support the community with this initiative that we do to honour the remembrance of survivors and victims of those schools by also bringing light to really what was a genocide in this country," she said.

TIHR works to provide critical basic needs, health support and access to ceremonies for Indigenous people who are living homeless in Toronto. 

Brianna Olsen Pitawanakwat and her partner Nanook Gordon have created silk screened orange shirts featuring Pitawanakwat in her jingle dress regalia. (Submitted by Brianna Olsen Pitawanakwat)

"Many of them are fluent language speakers, many of them are survivors of residential schools or the Sixties Scoop who have found themselves in positions that many of us can't even imagine," said Pitawanakwat. 

Both Pitawanakwat and Gordon have family members who attended residential school. 

"We want to make sure that people don't forget that it was a part of the Canadian history," said Pitawanakwat. 

The shirts feature Pitawanakwat in her jingle dress regalia. She said they chose the image as a symbol of strength and resilience. 

"It's something that's familiar to many Indigenous tribes as a symbol of healing," she said.

"That's what the intention behind the shirt was, to signify healing and resilience for our communities and how we have held onto our culture regardless of the genocide we experienced."

A chance to support those still suffering

For the last three years, Anishinabek Educational Institute (AEI) in North Bay, Ont., has partnered with Wrightway Sportswear for its orange shirt fundraising campaign. 

AEI is an Indigenous-operated post-secondary institution that offers students diploma and certificate programs.

'It’s huge to support our own communities and people in the communities,' says Kelly McLeod. (Sara Cornthwaite)

Profits from AEI's orange shirt campaign this year will be donated to the St. Anne's residential school survivors' legal defence. 

Three survivors are fighting the federal government to see their compensation cases reopened on the grounds that their claims were settled before Ottawa turned over thousands of relevant documents generated by a police investigation into child abuse at the school.

Kelly McLeod from Nipissing First Nation is the promotion and recruitment co-ordinator for AEI. She said Orange Shirt Day is important because it's a chance to be able to support those who are still suffering from the residential school system. 

"It's huge to support our own communities and people in the communities," she said.

"Because of the trauma and all that's gone with it in the past, we need to focus on healing ourselves. We're still not healed in the community sense and we really need the help."

Getting a conversation started

Peterborough, Ont., based screen printing company Nish Tees is raising money for the Curve Lake First Nation food bank this year through its Orange Shirt Day campaign.

"Mainstream Canadian society really needs to have their eyes open to the legacy of how they've treated Indigenous people," said James Hodgson, owner and operator of Nish Tees. 

For Hodgson, Orange Shirt Day hits close to home as his late mother was a residential school survivor. 

"It didn't give her the right tools mentally to be a mother so she put me up for adoption," he said.

"I am a direct result of residential school aftermath."

This year’s Nish Tees Orange Shirt Day design features a turtle design. The turtle is part of the seven grandfather teachings, representing truth. (Nish Tees)

This year's design features a turtle with the Anishinaabemowin word for turtle (mshiikenh) and the words Every Child Matters.

The turtle is part of the seven grandfather teachings, representing truth.

This is the third year that Nish Tees has done a fundraiser to mark Orange Shirt Day. Last year the image was a wolf and the year before was a bear, both of which represent their own grandfather teaching. 

He said he's trying to get a conversation started through the T-shirts and get people thinking about the seven grandfather teachings and the value that Indigenous knowledge holds for everyone. 


Rhiannon Johnson is an Anishinaabe journalist from Hiawatha First Nation based in Toronto. She has been with CBC since 2017 focusing on Indigenous life and experiences.