The Colour Orange Has New Meaning


In 1973 the colour orange expressed excitement.  It expressed the thrill in a little 6 year-old girl’s heart about beginning school.  It was the bright, shining colour of the shirt little Phyllis Webstad chose from among all the other shirts. It was this orange shirt she wanted to wear to start school at the Indian Residential School.

But the colour orange changed from a joy to hurt by the end of her very first day at school. Her precious orange shirt had been stripped from her by the teachers, and she never saw it again.  From then on, the colour orange reminded her of the day she learned that she was insignificant and that she no longer mattered.  Orange meant that her feelings did not matter and that nobody cared about her.

It was not until she was 27 years old, that she finally entered a treatment facility in order that the colour orange might take on a different hue, a different meaning.  In 2012 she told her story about the orange shirt to The Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Telling her truth restored and transformed the colour orange for her.  Since then, her story has helped her and helped many, many others to express solidarity with Indian Residential School Survivors by wearing orange on what became Orange Shirt Day. Now that day is called National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.  It now also commemorates the children who died and were buried in unmarked graves at Residential Schools.

On Sept. 30, 2021 the colour orange took on new meaning for many Canadians. People all over this land, of every race, religion and nationality, scrambled to find something orange to wear in order to remember and repent for the atrocities suffered by the students at the Residential Schools.  Some Indigenous people wore orange with a sense of new-found pride in their identity and in their resilience.

Non-Indigenous people, or settlers, wore orange in solidarity, and also in repentance for being members of the group that benefited from what was done to Indigenous children, to their families, and to subsequent generations.  It was not like wearing the colours of a favourite sports team and not like wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day to claim or pretend to be Irish for a day.

Previously, orange had been relegated to Halloween decorations, to a citrus juice, to a traffic signal, to traffic cones, to the caution hyphens on highways, to danger signs at construction sites, and to hunting clothes.

Now the colour orange is a reminder to re-learn the history of Canada.  This time we will study our history through the eyes of the Indigenous people. Now it is a reminder to remember how the children suffered in the Residential School System and lost their identity, their joy and often their hope.

Now, we wear an orange shirt or ribbon as a sign of our commitment.  It is an expression to do our part in building a world where we live in respect and friendship with our Indigenous brothers and sisters.  Now we wear orange as a sign that our Canada includes Indigenous nations as equal and founding members of our country.

Now we wear orange in grateful acknowledgement that we stand with the Indigenous people on the land they generously shared with all of us who have settled here.  Like it was for little Phyllis when she first spied it in the store, the colour orange is now very beautiful, very exciting and full of hope!

Robert Foliot, SJ is working in pastoral ministry at Martyr's Shrine, Midland and at St. Francis Xavier Mission on Christian Island.

  • Charles Pottie-Pâté
    Posted at 08:50h, 17 November Reply

    Wonderful reflection, Bert. Thank you. Thank you.

  • Sharon Walters
    Posted at 09:36h, 17 November Reply

    Thank you!

  • Sharon Walters
    Posted at 09:36h, 17 November Reply

    Thank you.

  • jack costello sj
    Posted at 10:31h, 17 November Reply

    Bert, good for you for supporting and building up the new image and feeling for orange.’..with its fresh identity. You note implicitly that ‘orange’ was not always a favoured colour for everyone, but you don’t mention at all why that was.
    Orange in Ireland, over decades was the colour identifying the English Protestant power class in Ireland–and Green was the identifier for Irish Catholics–who suffered significantly for ‘the wearing fo the Green.’ The Catholics in Ireland –and here is where the shared history becomes very relevant–were denied the right to speak their language in public, the right to ‘own’ the land they lived on for centuries, to live and celebrate their Catholic religion, denied the right to their own educational system, their right to serve in political office, and their right even to be educated at all. The ‘hedge-row schools’ for Catholic kids (by way of sneaky, guerrilla-like protest) were run by Catholic adults whose very lives were at risk in this bold resistance. And orange and green provided the symbolic difference. The orange/green symbols– lived on very strongly till recently. Orange, for a Catholic in Ireland was powerful…and it was, for Catholic Irish, the colour of oppression.
    Bert, you may have been thinking of that massive. similar historical injustice, (‘power-based orange’ vs ‘oppressed green’) in Ireland. But it might have been good to just mention it in the context of your excellent point re: a very new and deserved freedom being called for. It would make it easier for some people of Irish heritage to put on an orange shirt today with a clean and hopeful sense of ‘a new day coming.’–after a history not unlike that of the Aboriginal people in Canada.
    Your brother,
    Jack Costello sj

  • Peter Bisson
    Posted at 10:42h, 17 November Reply

    Thank you so much Bert!

  • Pauline Mary Theresa Lally
    Posted at 11:44h, 17 November Reply


  • Maria Skarzynski
    Posted at 13:21h, 17 November Reply

    Most inspiring – let’s all keep those orange shirts or get one before Sept. 30th next year. Here’s to little (and adult) Phyllis. Thank you Father Robert!

  • Dianne Musgrove DOS
    Posted at 14:00h, 17 November Reply

    Chi meqwetch Fr. Bert for your words, your compassion and understanding of us First Nations people. Thank you for sharing this TRUTH, may others read this and understand better our journey…may there one day be joy again and peace between our peoples.

  • Richard Grover
    Posted at 15:48h, 17 November Reply

    Thanks Bert. I think many of us have COVID 19 fatigue and perhaps also political fatigue. We dare not become fatigued about the looming world global warming. But much closer to home, I hope and pray that we never become fatigued by the truth and justice about the Indigenous people, the First Nations who have lived in Canada literally thousands of years before the rest of us. Richard

  • John Meehan
    Posted at 09:14h, 18 November Reply

    Wonderful reflection, Bert. Thanks so much!

  • Paul Baker
    Posted at 10:10h, 18 November Reply

    Bert, what a beautiful tribute to our First Nations persons. An interesting aside, I am a descendant of 3 pioneer families of northwestern New Brunswick. They received land grants near the Maliseet Tobique First Nation in the summer of 1819. The Maliseet Catholic Church was St. Anne’s. My parents were married there on November 8, 1911. St. Anne’s was the mother church for the newly arrived settlers. Thanks for a very thoughtful and insightful article.

  • Caroline Maloney
    Posted at 02:58h, 21 November Reply

    Thank you, Jack Costello S.J., for bringing to mind the previous story about the orange and green, and what the colour orange meant for us Irish Catholics! As a kid growing up, I heard all the oppressive stories about “the Orangeman”! Then later, while teaching and celebrating Halloween with kids through art, with lots of orange, I gradually got over my negative feelings about orange! As pointed out, the colour orange was not always “a favoured colour”. It still carries some negativity…combined with “orange shirt” day. Thank you!

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