The Orange Shirt Day Hangover: Municipalities, Denialism, and Residential School Histories

Mary Jane Logan McCallum

London, Ontario[1]

It’s October 1, 2022, and I wake up exhausted and tense, my jaw still clenched from the day before. My lungs are like raisins – there’s simply been no time to take a full breath.  Yesterday was Orange Shirt Day, and the days prior “Truth and Reconciliation Week,” and as an historian who studies Indian policy and Indigenous education, I was happy to have some public spaces to talk about the history of Indian Residential Schools.   

Indigenous historians’ community-based and public education work has always been tricky.  For one, most Canadians have little to no knowledge of Indigenous history, except for what they think they know, which often consists of thinly veiled stereotypes and misconceptions drawn from the general culture.[2] Indeed, we know Orange Shirt Day events can be triggering for Survivors, their families, and their communities, including Indigenous historians and other scholars committed to uncovering Canada’s archive of genocide.   As historians, there are various points of entry into the topic of residential schools that we can offer; however, in the context of Orange Shirt Day, these can become narrow and contrived by and for audiences who expect certain types of information delivered in a certain way by certain types of Indigenous people.[3] We must also contend with unsubstantiated arguments by non-Indigenous people on practically any subject of Indigenous history that gain media attention especially at times like this.[4] In this context, Indigenous people with PhDs who study the past rigorously for a living can struggle to be heard.

In addition to expectations of the messaging and the medium of that message during Orange Shirt Day / Week, cultures created around Orange Shirt Day that have developed in places where Indigenous people are extremely underrepresented are especially fraught. For twenty years now, I have lived in Winnipeg amid an active, thriving, and much more predominant Indigenous population than most cities, but I grew up near Barrie, Ontario, amongst a decidedly more settler population. Others who unfortunately haven’t had the opportunity to experience both will just have to trust me.  In places like Winnipeg, Indigenous people as well as Indigenous community laws and structures are part of everyday life and the bigger conversation about how things should work.

Residential schools have local histories of their own.  So far, Canadians have attended almost exclusively to the national history of residential schools that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission studied and focused its public education efforts on over the past decade.  However, this comes at the cost of deeper and more localized understanding of the system of residential schools, allowing Canadians today to distance themselves from their day-to-day operations and legacies. Residential schools employed local citizens, operated within local geographies, and fed low-skilled farm and domestic labour directly into the homes and communities that surrounded them.  For the most part, these communities saw First Nations as a federal responsibility, which functioned as both justification and mechanism for racial segregation. While Canada’s Constitution does indeed give jurisdiction over “Indians” to the federal government, it does not deny provinces, municipalities, or individuals the ability to pursue meaningful relationships with Indigenous people and nations. David Parent’s recent examination of municipal tax rolls to understand Metis land dispossession in Manitoba reveals just how deeply implicated non-federal governing bodies are in Indigenous histories.[5] There are equally important municipal histories of residential schools that can and will help the past and the present make sense, especially to Canadian communities that have grown up on the borders of reserves.[6]  Until more of those closer connections can be developed, events like Orange Shirt Day require significant care and attention, alongside Indigenous history training and education programming sewn into rural and municipal governing structures.

I recently spoke at an Orange Shirt Day event after a long chain of email forwards made it to my mailbox about a week prior to September 30.  There are many things I don’t know about the efforts that went into organizing this event meant to ponder the truth of residential school history in a rural municipality with three neighbouring reserves (acknowledged in the opening of the event), but I imagine it was difficult. The task of organizing the event appeared to have fallen exclusively to women (of course) who work for local municipal government. Hosting speakers at these types of events is awkward, given the histories and ongoing tensions of dispossession, racism, and marginalization that lie between the urban and rural municipalities and the Indigenous communities meant to “come together” in “truth and reconciliation,” especially as such histories continue to the present.[7] When this outdoor event began, it was immediately clear that the sound system was broken: while the mic was working, there was a constant, loud, grating noise in the background; “It worked on Canada Day,” I was told.  As far as I could tell, no one made even a motion to fix it, giving me the impression that the municipality did not view the speakers, and what they were saying, as important. This impression was confirmed in the oblivious, off-the-cuff speeches offered by the municipal and church delegates who had been invited to participate. There was history work to do here.

Before I spoke, I asked to have the system turned off during my talk, as I had my own personal microphone and amp (a covid purchase for in-class lectures while wearing a mask).  I made the request lightly and politely – I was, after all, visiting – but it was met with a sneer. I had to wonder if the sound system had been rigged not to work and me and my own mic were ruining some juvenile prank.  I doubt that was truly the case, but it is how I felt.

I was anxious to talk in this community because I had recently published a book on a residential school located approximately fifteen miles to the east. Mount Elgin Industrial school was operated by the United Church of Canada and the federal government at Deshkan Ziibiing, Chippewas of the Thames First Nation, for almost one hundred years.  The project to study Mount Elgin was an effort of the Munsee Delaware Language and History Group, which meets regularly to learn our language, Lunaape, and our history. We applied to Heritage Canada and received funding earmarked for projects that “Celebrate” Canada and “Commemorate” Residential Schools, as if it’s possible to do both at once. We chose to focus our study locally to make it useful to the teaching of history in Ontario, where students first encounter Canadian history covering the era 1890–1915 in grade eight. We also chose to narrow the topic to student labour at Mount Elgin, because it was so central to the running of the institution. The book includes images, maps, and archival documents, as well as review and discussion sections, a glossary – and perhaps most importantly, careful translations of terms and phrases by Munsee Lunaape language experts to help teach about girls’ and boys’ work in the barns, fields, kitchen, and laundry as well as illustrations by Munsee artists who read and responded to the book in their own artforms.  I brought copies of the book to share with people attending the event while I provided an overview of the book.[8]

About 30–40 students in grades 4 and 5 sat on the ground at the front while perhaps another 30 or 40 adults sat on chairs and stood at the back.  As I was explaining the essential function of child labour at the Mount Elgin industrial school and farm, I could see in my periphery a person walk towards me.  I thought it could be someone who had experienced the school firsthand, and so I respectfully provided both the space and my amplifier to speak. He would not look at me in the eye, however, and acted as if I wasn’t even there. In front of dozens of children and adults, this individual proceeded to deny my assertions and to praise his ancestor, Egerton Ryerson (a person who did not factor into my analysis at all).  This residential school denialist[9] (who was not wearing an Orange Shirt) was not a scheduled speaker, and his interruption showed obvious contempt for me and the scholarly research I represent.  And no one stopped him.  Presumably, this person went to the event with the sole purpose of protecting themselves and their ancestor from this history that hit so close to home.  When he had finished and walked away, I pushed my emotions down as far as they would go and carried on.  At the end of the event, a United Church minister asked if he could take a photo of me with Ryerson’s descendant for a newspaper article he wanted to write; Ryerson Jr. refused and backed away with a look of disgust. There is a huge gap here that most Canadians don’t even see.

This is the context in which Indigenous historians labour. We work in a social, and often professional, context that largely does not see Indigenous history as mattering, let alone First Nations, Métis, or Inuit people as fully human.  We are experts in a subject for which people can’t or won’t distinguish uninformed opinion from expert analysis grounded in evidence. We live in a country where the bar for history is so low and anti-Indigenous that elected municipal, provincial and federal officials and church ministers cannot tell the difference or simply don’t demand better, even on days devoted to this very thing, at events organized on everyone’s workday to do this very thing. When confronted with an interruption such as I’ve just described, the “common sense” suggests that what anyone has to say about Canada is as truthful as what historians and Indigenous people have to say about it.[10] On a very basic level, as Eve Tuck and others have argued, careful attention must be given to chairing meetings and events like this so that speakers are not put into the position of having to make time for someone else during time that is allotted to them.[11] Words said after a violent act like the one I experienced matter far less than interrupting the act itself.  My interactions with audience members as well as delegates at the event afterwards was mixed – some acknowledged the problematic individual, but many didn’t. My sense after the event was that this man simply felt entitled to interrupt an Indigenous woman no matter now experienced and knowledgeable, and that nothing could be done to stop it.

Imagine what it is like to be educated in Indigenous history, spending ten or more years at a Canadian university, moving through the ranks, being tested and reviewed, and then devoting your life to researching and teaching it because Indigenous history is the founding and continuing history of the place where we live today and it matters that people get it right.  Now imagine the myriad indignities Indigenous historians face while doing this.  This year, for me, Orange Shirt Day was one of them.

[1] Xwat anushiik to Jill McConkey and Rob Innes who read earlier versions of this paper and helped me make it better.

[2] For example, in his response to a survey on the Indigenous Course Requirement, Dr. Ryan Eyford notes that his students will often cite that Native people “used all of the buffalo.”  Mary Jane McCallum, “History Faculty and History Indigenous Course Requirement Courses,” paper delivered at the 2017 Ethnohistory conference in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Also Mark Cronlund Anderson and Carmen L. Robertson, Seeing Red: A History of Natives in Canadian Newspapers (University of Manitoba Press, 2011) and the following 2022 story of kids making orange construction paper, feathered “headdresses” at a BC preschool in preparation for National Day for Truth and Reconciliation:   

[3] Audra Simpson, “Reconciliation and its Discontents: Settler Governance in an Age of Sorrow,” 15 March, 2016, University of Saskatchewan, 15 March, 2016.

[4] In an “Open Letter” on Genocide “Myth” several Canadians who never studied any Indigenous history at all, opined confidently and ignorantly on the history of residential schools. See Paul Burrows, “Genocide, Genocide-Denial, Nationalism, and the Canadian historical Profession,” Black Cat Red River, 10 August, 2021.; Council of the Canadian Historical Association. “The History of Violence Against Indigenous Peoples Fully Warrants the Use of the Word ‘Genocide.” Canada Day Statement.” 30 June 2021.; and Brenda Macdougald, Mary Jane McCallum, Kim Anderson, Alan Ojiig Corbiere, Susan Hill, Winona Wheeler and Robert Alexander Innes. “Open Letter to the Council of the Canadian Historical Association and the Canadian Public.” Shekon Neechie 13 August 2021.

[5] David Parent, “Governing Metis Indigeneity: the settler-colonial dispossession and regulation of the Metis in mid-twentieth century Manitoba,” PhD Dissertation, University of Alberta 2021. For work on provincial governments and Indigenous history, see for Manitoba Aimée Craft and Jill Blakley, eds., In Our Backyard: Keeyask and the Legacy of Hydroelectric Development (University of Manitoba Press, 2022)and for Ontario see Brittany Luby, Dammed: The Politics of Loss and Survival in Anishinaabe Territory (University of Manitoba Press, 2020) and Helen Olsen Ager, Dadibaajim: Returning Home Through Narrative (University of Manitoba Press, 2021).

[6] One example of this is Survivors of the Assiniboia Indian Residential School and Andrew Woolford, eds., Did You See Us: Reunion, Remembrance, and Reclamation at an Urban Indian Residential School (University of Manitoba Press, 2021).  This book shows what change is possible from more localized attention.  Assiniboia Indian Residential School barely registered on people’s radar before the book, but because of this work, and deliberate engagement with it, it’s clear that many more know about it.  A new city park and memorial has been built as a site for public engagement and education.   

[7] This tension exists everywhere in a colonial nation state, but notable examples are the unresolved land claim at Oka, Quebec and Caledonia, Ontario.  Laurence Brisson Dubreuil, “Oka Backtracks on Land Protection,” Toronto Star, 24 January, 2022; and the 1492 Land Back movement which seeks to draw attention to land development on disputed territory without First Nations consent, (Yellowhead Institute, “Yellowhead Statement at 1492 Land Back Lane,” 8 September, 2020

[8] Mary Jane Logan McCallum, Nii Ndahlohke: Boys’ and Girls’ Work at Mount Elgin Industrial School, 1890-1915 (FriesenPress, 2022).

[9] The term Residential School denialist has been used to describe those who “reject or misrepresent basic facts about residential schooling to undermine truth and reconciliation efforts.”  Sean Carleton, “Truth before reconciliation: 8 ways to identify an confront Residential School denialism,” The Conversation 5 August 2021,  This article identifies some of the arguments used by denialists to undermine grounded research on the residential schools, some of which were made by this man at this Orange Shirt Day event.   

[10] See also “Open Letter,” Dorchester Review 12 August 2021 signed by 53 individuals, only one of whom has undertaken sustained primary research on the topic of residential schools, that argues there are “no grounds” for the claim that Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples was genocidal.  

[11] See fTwitter Thread by Eve Tuck, 19 June 2019:

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