'I wear it for my parents': Orange Shirt Day is about more than wearing orange

By Jon Rumley, Walmart Canada Corporate Affairs

For Indigenous peoples and their communities, Orange Shirt Day is about more than wearing an orange shirt. It’s a day to show support for residential school survivors and Indigenous peoples on the road to truth and reconciliation because every child matters.

“I wear it for my parents because my parents went to residential schools,” says Yullinda Ponicappo, Walmart Canada’s produce department manager in Yorkton, Sask. “Growing up, we heard the stories.”

Joshua Oshkabewisens, Walmart’s operations assistant manager at the Sudbury North Supercentre in northern Ontario, says residential schools impacted families on his reserve. He wears orange to raise awareness and create a better future for his two-year-old daughter.

“When I had my child, my whole world turned upside down. I need to do things for my child so they understand the world better and the world understands us a little better,” Joshua says.

“My people have gotten a bad rep for a long time and I aim to change that.”

Orange Shirt Day 2021

The past few months have shined a light on the dark history of residential schools in Canada. The recent confirmation of unmarked graves containing the remains of Indigenous children have broken many hearts.

“It really stung, having a young child myself,” Joshua says. “The thought of my child being taken away from me, as a parent, just hit home for me.”

“You can see the effects of it,” Yullinda says. “And if it doesn’t make you uncomfortable, well, it should make you uncomfortable because these were little kids that this happened to.”

Orange Shirt Day commemorates the story of Phyllis Webstad, who was six years old in 1973 when an orange shirt was stripped off her back on her first day of residential school in Williams Lake, B.C.

She never saw her orange shirt again.

To honour her story and those who attended residential schools, Orange Shirt Day was commemorated in 2013. This year, Sept. 30 will also be observed as a federal statutory holiday for the first time as the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

“What it means to me is I stand with these people that went through that and I’m here with you,” Yullinda says. “I see you and I honour those little ones that didn’t make it.”

The last residential school in Canada closed in 1997, but the intergenerational trauma continues to exist.

“Growing up my entire life not knowing why my mom or my dad treated me the way they did, that kind of messed me up,” Joshua admits. “I never had a childhood.”

There’s also the issue of systemic racism against Indigenous peoples, which is an ongoing problem.

“The discrimination is still there. And it’s gotten worse with these schools with the remains being found,” Yullinda reveals. “I get discriminated against every day. Every day something happens.”

Despite the challenges, there’s hope for the future as more Canadians show their support and educate themselves on the history of Indigenous peoples.

“People want to learn,” Yullinda says. “It’s pretty cool how you can make new perspectives.”

“If people want to listen, we’ll talk,” Joshua adds. “Walmart gave me a safe haven to talk about culture, to talk about diversity.”

Walmart Canada stands with Indigenous people. Associates will join Yullinda and Joshua in wearing orange shirts on Sept. 30, created in partnership with the Orange Shirt Society. For each of these orange shirts sold, 100% of the profits will go to the Orange Shirt Society to support the important work they do in Indigenous communities across Canada. To learn more, visit walmart.ca/orangeshirtday.

“It’s not about the colour, it’s about standing with people.” Yullinda says. “I’m still here, I’m celebrating, I’m Indigenous – hear me roar!”