WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
A top Canadian Armed Forces official last fall ordered soldiers not to wear orange to honour Indigenous survivors of residential schools, internal emails obtained by The Fifth Estate show.
Orange Shirt Day has been marked informally across Canada for years to commemorate the damage done by residential schools, which were federally funded institutions run by religious orders that many Indigenous children were forced by law to attend. Many children who attended faced physical and sexual abuse, and were forced to leave their culture and language behind.
People mark their solidarity by wearing an orange shirt or pinning an orange cloth to their shirts.
As of this Sept. 30, Orange Shirt Day will become the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, a new federal statutory holiday finalized in early June, after the discovery of the remains of an estimated 215 children on the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in B.C.
But last fall, a top Armed Forces official, Chief Petty Officer 1st Class Gilles Grégoire, issued a directive barring members from showing their support for the residential school remembrance day.
The afternoon before Orange Shirt Day 2020, emails were sent out across Canada to remind leaders to tell their subordinates not to wear orange while in uniform.
The forwarded email, obtained through access to information legislation, had the subject line “ORANGE T SHIRT DAY NOT APPROVED” and read in part that “the wearing of orange t shirts or Square cloth fabric on the uniform is NOT authorised for the 30th of Sept.”
Grégoire began his appointment in September 2020 as the Armed Forces chief warrant officer, one of the most important positions in the Canadian military, and is responsible for overseeing discipline among all non-commissioned military members.
Military encourages ‘appropriate’ show of solidarity
The military declined an interview request with Grégoire. In a statement, a spokesperson said the rules preclude “the wearing of garments or accessories that are not part of the approved military dress.”
“We encourage our members to participate in commemoration events and to extend and show their solidarity in an appropriate way,” the statement said.
Former infantry soldier Master Cpl. Tim O’Loan said he feels it’s important that members be allowed to wear an orange shirt, square or ribbon on their uniform to work, where they spend most of their time each day.
“I guarantee you, there are individuals that wanted to support in a quiet, respectful way Orange Shirt Day and that was squashed,” he said. “I bet you, without any doubt, they would have been disappointed by that.”
O’Loan, who is a member of the Dene Nation, joined the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry unit in Alberta when he was 17. He served for 10 years before leaving, in part due to racism he faced on the job.
“Many [Indigenous people] joined because that’s their commitment to the treaties that they signed with the Crown,” he said from his home in Ottawa.
“And the Crown, to not respect and honour the Indigenous participation in this is a slap on the face.”
Armed Forces has ties to residential schools
As of 2019, more than 2,700 soldiers, sailors and aviators have self-identified as Indigenous, according to the Department of National Defence. O’Loan said he suspects many are descendants of survivors or attended schools themselves.
“The impact of residential school, sadly, has landed on the shoulders of many of those that are serving,” he said.
The Canadian Armed Forces also has a long history with residential schools.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that some schools were set up in unsafe former military facilities. In one case, a federal agent warned that “if a fire started in the building, there would be a great probability of considerable loss of life.”
The military ran school-based cadet programs, considered a training ground for future recruits. At one school, the commission identified two staff members who supervised and molested cadets.
The commission also highlighted how in 1956, a cadet instructor crashed a van carrying 28 students while “undoubtedly under the influence of alcohol and driving at an excessive speed.”
“There’s horrific things that have happened,” said O’Loan, who worked as an adviser for the commission.
James Dempsey, an associate professor of native studies at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, is one of the few people who has studied Indigenous military history in Western Canada. He said the military has had a long, complicated relationship with Indigenous peoples and has failed to acknowledge its role in the harm done in a variety of circumstances.
“The military is an institution that moves incredibly slow,” said Dempsey, a member of the Blood tribe in southern Alberta. “Why? Because they believe they’ve got it right.”
Dempsey said his experience serving on the board of the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont., makes him suspect that the wearing of orange was barred due to the bureaucracy of changing the uniform rules.
“To change that in a relatively speaking instant just isn’t going to happen. It’s got to go through too many committees,” he said.
Bell Let’s Talk hats, masks allowed
The military has made at least one exception to its strict uniform code for another public event: Bell Let’s Talk Day.
The telecom-sponsored day promotes mental health awareness, and some of the money raised goes to support programs for veterans and their families.
Don’t mask your feelings. Keep the conversation going. <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/BellLetsTalk?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#BellLetsTalk</a> <a href=”https://t.co/TNTbthFqNk”>pic.twitter.com/TNTbthFqNk</a>
Photos on official social media accounts show uniformed sailors and soldiers wearing Bell Let’s Talk tuques and, in at least one case, a blue Bell face mask.
Dempsey said he would like an explanation as to why the military couldn’t make a similar exception for First Nations members.
Orange Shirt Day founder offers solution
Phyllis Webstad, a residential school survivor who started Orange Shirt Day, said she can offer the military a solution.
She said she has helped other agencies with strict uniform codes, including law enforcement, find a solution that allows their members to participate. She pointed to one agency that dyed its work shirts orange, while another is developing a standardized enamel pin for officers to wear.
“There’s probably a lack of information at the head of the military,” Webstad said. “The blinds are off and they have no choice but to accept.”
O’Loan, who now sits on the the federal Veterans Ombudsman Advisory Council, said it’s time for the Armed Forces to take steps to address the racism that members continue to face in the military.
To start, he said he hopes members will be allowed to wear orange on their uniform this September.
“Conversations are happening,” O’Loan said. “I just feel that the military needs to try and catch up with the rest of society.”
Support is available for anyone affected by the lingering effects of residential schools and those who are triggered by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.
Do you have more information about this story? Contact Rachel Ward at email@example.com.