Residential school survivors, families fill demand for orange masks for Orange Shirt Day

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a demand for orange face masks for this year's Orange Shirt Day, with many people looking to buy them from Indigenous makers. 

'Any kind of a reminder is good for people to see,' says Gail Fiddler

Betsy Head is a residential school survivor. She has been making orange masks for residential school survivors and other people in her home community of Opaskwayak Cree Nation. (Mariah Moore)

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a demand for orange face masks for this year's Orange Shirt Day, with many people looking to buy them from Indigenous makers. 

Orange Shirt Day, marked on Sept. 30, is meant to honour the thousands of Indigenous students who attended residential schools across the country. It was started by residential school survivor Phyllis Webstad, who had her orange shirt taken away on her first day of residential school.

Betsy Head, a recently retired grandmother and residential school survivor, has been making masks to supplement her income. Head is from Opaskwayak Cree Nation and attended the Mackay Indian Residential School in Dauphin, Man. 

She was recently asked to sew orange masks for residential school survivors in the community. Her daughters helped her to fill an order of 100 masks by cutting, tracing and putting the elastics on.

Fiddler said she didn't learn how to sew in residential school. It was her mother Irene who taught her how to sew and bead at home. (Mariah Moore)

The orange masks that she has made also got an added touch before being delivered. 

"When I was leaving, my little grandson there, he got up and went and hugged all the masks that she had put elastics on," said Head. 

"I thought that was very special that he did that and he's only two years old and nobody coached him to do it. But he did it."

Over the years, she has had discussions with her children and grandchildren about the impacts that residential schools have had on Indigenous people.

"I tell them how it was and how it was just sad to be over there when I was that age. I don't remember doing too many fun things," said Head.

"I know a lot of the people must have had a hard time, and then they had a hard life after that. They were trying to forget all the loneliness and heartaches and abuse." 

Head gives credit to her mother Irene Cowley for teaching her how to sew, do beadwork and make things like moccasins.

Intergenerational mask makers

Some of the people working to fill the demand for orange masks are the children of residential school survivors.

Both Bryson Syliboy and Gail Fiddler have parents who went to residential schools.

Bryson Syliboy originally made an orange mask for himself. He said the orange masks are a good conversation starter for anyone who wants to learn about residential schools. (Submitted by Bryson Syliboy)

Syliboy, who has numerous family members who attended the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School in Nova Scotia, said he originally made an orange mask for himself to honour his family.

After he posted a photo online, requests started coming in and he was asked to make some for a school in Truro, N.S.

"I'm proud of it," said Syliboy.

"I feel like it's something where we as Indigenous people can express our culture and even our pain. Residential schools were a big sorrow for all of us."  

As a mother of four living in Winnipeg, Fiddler said she has had to overcome some of the effects of residential schools.

"I still suffer from a lot of intergenerational abuse that I experienced from being raised by residential school survivors," said Fiddler.

Gail Fiddler has been making masks for the community. Here are her two sons Joseph (left) and Stephen. (Submitted by Gail Fiddler)

Her sons are learning from home this year and she said they have been helping her to make masks for people who ask for them.

"I want that awareness to be raised and never be forgotten and any kind of a reminder is good for people to see," said Fiddler.