Orange has never been my color. I find something to like about nearly every color, but orange is one that makes me uncomfortable. A friend once made me a piece of art that was gorgeous and original, but it had a bright orange background. She said the orange represented energy, but it was hard for me to contemplate. It made me squirm.
I don’t have any other orange art in my house. All our decorations are on the cooler side of the color wheel, and I love that every wall and ceiling of our house was painted blue. I have no orange clothing, with the exception of one stripe in a sweater I’m working on right now.
But in these latter days, orange has become a very important color.
Back in 2013, a brave indigenous woman named Phyllis shared her story of her first day at residential school. On their first day, the children had all of their traditional clothing taken away. It was the first step in the systematic cultural genocide that residential students suffered. For Phyllis, she was wearing a new orange shirt that her grandmother had given her, and it was taken away. After Phyllis shared her story, Orange Shirt Day was created, and has been observed on every September 30th since, to remind Canada of what residential school students went through when they were taken away to school in the fall.
When we moved to Canada in 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation project was well underway. We learned as much as we could about residential schools from the many survivors who were part of our congregation, as well as from documentaries and books. We had to learn how to situate ourselves as ministers one of the church bodies which had helped the government administrate residential schools, even though we had been asked to come and serve by indigenous Christians who had come to terms with the past in their own ways. But at the time, it was just one important aspect of the varied and complex Inuit culture we were learning about.
Then this summer, something big dropped. In Kamloops, BC, the unmarked graves of 215 children were found on the grounds of a former residential school. This rocked the indigenous peoples of Canada, for many people triggering memories of what they themselves suffered at school.
It was different this time, because I wasn’t learning something about the past. I had heard vaguely of children who had disappeared, whose families were trying to locate and reclaim their remains, but I didn’t really process what that meant. This time, I was watching my friends process this renewed trauma in the present. Friends who had shared their own stories with me. Those 215 children could have been one of my friends. The term “residential school survivor” finally became literal for me, because so many children didn’t survive.
I think what really gets to me is the anonymity with which these children were buried. These are not mass graves; these accumulated over time. Why didn’t they notify the families? Would they have done the same things at charity boarding schools with poor white children (like in Jane Eyre)? Did they not believe these children were fully human? That their families mattered?
My story is not important in this unfolding, but I have had to come to terms again with my position as a minister in the Anglican Church. Soon after the news of the 215 came out, I had a dream. I was with the priests and nuns digging the graves. They were scared and guilty in my dream, but they were scared for themselves. I am not Canadian yet, and I’m not even Catholic – Catholics would say I’m not even made of the right stuff to be a priest – but Anglicans had these schools too, were part of the same system. These were my spiritual predecessors who committed these acts.
If my apology can mean anything, as an outsider, as a newcomer, I say to my friends, please receive it. Receive it from me on hands and knees with my face to the ground. I am sorry. And thank you for the privilege of standing behind you and beside you.
After the 215 in Kamloops, more discoveries came. 751 unmarked graves were found at a residential school in Saskatchewan, and another 182 in another part of British Columbia. There will be more.
This past Thursday was Canada Day. That’s usually a day for red and white, for maple leaves and parades. But a large part of Canada didn’t feel like celebrating this time. I remember when my grandfather died, it was in the first half of November. My family couldn’t bring themselves to celebrate (American) Thanksgiving later that month. I didn’t even come home from college. The rest of the family got together for gnocchi, but no big turkey roast. There was a desire to be together, but not celebrate. So it’s no mystery to me why so many communities across Canada canceled their Canada Day celebrations this year.
Instead of white and red, we have orange. It’s much more than a T-shirt now – I see orange on facebook profiles, on fingernails, on large signs on the sides of houses that read “Every Child Matters.” It’s not quite a pure-hued orange, but an earthier tone. Energetic, but with a depth of feeling that changes along the spectrum of grief. It’s the color of the earth that cries out with the blood of our brothers and sisters. We were their keepers, and we failed them.
Bright orange isn’t a color I think about finding in nature every day. But it’s there, and one brilliant example is the Jeweled Lichen, also called “Elegant Sunburst.” It grows on every rock near our friends’ cabin. It seems to hide in cracks and spread across surfaces as soon as the sun and rain find it peeping out from under the snow. My nature guide says that it cannot be removed from the surface it clings to without coming apart. I remember hearing once that it feeds on the nutrients in bird droppings.
So here is an arctic orange that makes beauty from literal crap. That sleeps in unlikely places, but comes forth to demand notice on every surface. That cannot be removed without breaking apart, just as you cannot remove a people from their own culture without destruction. It is an orange that I will wear with a deep mixture of emotions, with a discomfort that I cannot and will not turn from. As my own children climb these orange-speckled rocks, I remember the children who deserved to do the same. I remember the survivors who still struggle with the after-effects of abuse, and deserve compassion. And I remember the children of today, and pray that truth and reconciliation will bring a new hope and a future.