Indianz.Com > News > Doug George-Kanentiio: Wearing orange for Native residential school survivors
Orange Shirt Day
Orange Shirt Day is observed annually in Canada on September 30th, in honor of a story shared by Native residential school survivor Phyllis Webstad.
Photo: Provincial Government of British Columbia
Why Wear Orange?
Monday, August 23, 2021

People ask why the residential-boarding school survivors, their respective families and supporters wear orange. This began in 2013 when Phyllis Jack-Webstad of the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem Nation recalled when she was stripped of her orange shirt when she was taken to a residential school; it has since become a symbol of defiance across the nation.

I asked Mohawk faithkeeper (Roterihonton) Kevin Deer if this must remain so. He said we can turn the color into goodness if we see orange in a different way. Orange, he said, is the color of fire, it is the source of heat during the cold season and light in the dark of night. It is what cooks our food, provides us with comfort and in its flames are the stories of our ancestors who gathered around fire not only for warmth but to socialize, to remember, to dance and sing.

Our wampum is the symbolic fire of the people and each longhouse has its own council fire. Fire has its own life; it breathes oxygen as we do, it can also sing, cackle and roar. The old-timers would always “feed” the fire before they ate by casting a morsel of their meal into the flames. Fire was also emotional and demanded respect, it can be cultivated and spoken to. Fire is a way to reach into the spirit world when tobacco, sage or sweetgrass is given to it.

Joe Commanda
Joe Commanda was struck and killed by a train on September 13, 1968, while trying to make it home from the Mohawk Institute Residential School in Ontario, Canada. He was 13 years old. Family photo

Fire set carefully in clearings and atop hills is a beacon of hope. It gives us a direction in which we are to go and can help in finding those who are lost. For the residential school survivors spiritual fire may scour the memories of the abuse which took place in those schools; it burns away the simmering feelings of abandonment, isolation and fear. The brightness of orange dispels those grim days of darkness and despair.

The family of Joseph Commanda will wear orange on a three day August 27-29 commemoration walk. Commanda was a 13 year old Algonquin boy from Pikwakanagan (Golden Lake), the last fatality stemming from the violence at the Mohawk Institute in Brantford. I was also confined to the Institute and knew Joseph well.

His Akwesasne Mohawk friends called him Joey; he and his brother Rocky were sent to the Institute because they would not confirm to the school rules in his home community. He was, as we all were, underfed and vulnerable. We gave him protection and shared what we had with the brothers. As a gang we were involved in many acts of defiance serious enough to have the Akwesasne boys expelled in June of 1968. Joey and his brother returned to the Institute in September of that year and when they learned we would not return they did what we had done-they ran, following a set of train tracks which they hoped would bring them closer to home 400 km away.

The brothers walked to Hamilton, 50 kilometers east of the Institute’s location in Brantford, before Rocky was arrested and jailed by the Ontario Provincial Police. Joey escaped and continued on another 50 kilometers, reaching the west end of Toronto where he was struck and killed at 5:14 pm on September 3rd, avoiding one train before been hit by another just below what was then the St. Joseph’s Hospital. The subsequent investigation into Joey’s death led to the closure of the Mohawk Institute in 1971.

Joey’s family, wearing orange, will leave the grounds of the Institute in Brantford at 8 AM August 27 and follow the route of the runaway brothers from where they began their homeward trek until the place of Joey’s death, a total of 100 km. A ceremony will be held as close to the site as possible at 9 AM on August 29 where a plaque and flowers will mark the precise point of that tragedy.

Almost 2,000 Native children have been found on the grounds of the former schools and thousands more have yet to be located. The march will be part of a provincial and federal initiative to bring them home: orange will be the symbolic flame to let their spirits know they will be no longer lost in the dark.

The Walk for Joe is on Facebook.

Doug George-Kanentiio, Akwesasne Mohawk, is a residential school survivor. He was given the number 4-8-2-738. He serves as the vice-president of the Hiawatha Institute for Indigenous Knowledge. He previously served as a Trustee for the National Museum of the American Indian, is a former land claims negotiator for the Mohawk Nation and is the author of numerous books and articles about the Mohawk people. He may be reached via e-mail at: or by calling 315-415-7288.