Orange Shirt Day ‘not approved’ for military members honouring residential school survivors

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A top Canadian Armed Forces official last fall issued a directive barring soldiers from wearing orange to honour the Indigenous survivors of residential schools, internal emails obtained by The Fifth Estate show.

Members of the cadet corps at the Anglican residential school in Cardston, Alta., are pictured after winning a prize in this undated photo. (General Synod Archives, Anglican Church of Canada, P2004-09-147/Truth and Reconciliation Commission)

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.

Grégoire began his appointment in September 2020 as the Canadian Armed Forces’ chief warrant officer (CAF CWO), one of the most important positions in the Canadian military, and is responsible for overseeing discipline among all non-commissioned military members.

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.

This email, obtained through access to information legislation, states that wearing orange on a uniform was not permitted for Orange Shirt Day in 2020. (ATIP DND)

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.”

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.”

Master Cpl. Tim O’Loan left the military in 1993, in part due to the racism he faced. He went on to advise the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. (Submitted by Tim O’Loan)

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.

O’Loan, who served in the Canadian military in the 1980s and ’90s, is a member of the Dene Nation. He joined the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry unit in Alberta when he was 17 and served for 10 years. (Submitted by Tim O’Loan)

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.”

Air cadets from the Williams Lake, B.C., residential school in 1956. (Indian Affairs and Northern Development, Library and Archives Canada, PA-210715/Truth and Reconcilation Commission)

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.

Cadets from the Anglican residential school in Cardston, Alta., stand at ease in this undated photo. (General Synod Archives, Anglican Church of Canada, P75-103-S7-44/Truth and Reconciliation 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. #BellLetsTalk pic.twitter.com/TNTbthFqNk

—@CanadianArmy

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.

Rear Admiral John Newton, who before his retirement was commander of Maritime Forces Atlantic, is pictured in the front row, second from left, with comedian Mary Walsh and the crew of HMCS Montréal at a Bell Let’s Talk campaign event in Halifax in 2016. (Brinton Photography/National Defence)

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.”

Orange Shirt Day founder Phyllis Webstad, a residential school survivor, has helped agencies with strict uniform codes, including law enforcement, find a solution that allows their members to participate. (Lenard Monkman/CBC)

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 protected]

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