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Orange Shirt Day hits home at a time of reconciliation in Canada

Image of Secwépemc and Syilx artist Kel-c Jules signing a t-shirt
Secwépemc and Syilx artist Kel-c Jules signs a tee shirt she designed at a roadside stand in her hometown of Kamloops in June. Those shirts sold out and raised $10,000 for the Indian School Survivors Society, and she has since produced a new design for an Orange Shirt Day tee available to BC Hydro employees.

September 30 is Canada's first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation

The discovery of more than 1,000 unmarked graves at former residential school sites across Canada, which began with the discovery of 215 graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, opened Canadians eyes to the tragic reality of what occurred at these institutions.

Orange Shirt Day, which takes place on September 30, is a day to honour the healing journey of residential school survivors and their families. The day is also now a statutory holiday, known as the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, to give Canadians time to reflect and learn about the lived experience of Indigenous peoples.

Kamloops-based Indigenous artist designs orange shirt to honour survivors

"The discovery in Kamloops had a profound, huge impact on my family, and my community as a whole," says Kel-c Jules, a 25-year-old Indigenous Education Worker with the Kamloops school district and member of the Secwépemc and Syilx Indigenous Nations. "In our community, we'd known for a long time that this had happened. So this discovery has almost been a blessing, because the story went worldwide."

Also a model and artist, Jules responded to May's news by designing an Orange Day tee shirt as a fundraiser for the Indian Residential School Survivors Society. Teaming up with the owners of Overtime Apparel and Promotions in Kamloops, Jules raised more than $10,000 for the society through the sale of the tees, which sold out quickly.

And she didn't stop there. Jules is one of two Indigenous artists who has designed Orange Day tee shirts for BC Hydro employees. The other artist is Ashley Michel, a member of Tk'emlúps te Secwe̓pemc.

Image of an Orange Shirt Day t-shirt designed by Secwépemc and Syilx artist Kel-c Jules
Indigenous artist Kel-c Jules reached back to the pictograph designs of her Indigenous ancestors for the design of an Orange Shirt Day tee shirt will be made available to BC Hydro employees.

Jules' tee shirt design leans on tradition

The daughter of a residential school survivor, Jules says she's proud to see younger members of the Secwépemc Nation learn and embrace the community's traditions. And she has taken care to celebrate those traditions in the four-panel art on the tee shirt she designed for BC Hydro.

Jules says the design on the shirt is purposeful, reflecting the pictograph or petroglyph style of her ancestors. Here's her explanation of what the four panels are about:

"On the upper left hand side, there's the bear paw. The bear in Secwépemc traditions is the medicine keeper. If you go on a journey or a hike searching for a medicine, and you see a bear, you can ask "kenkéknem", or "bear", to help guide you. Whatever plant he shows you is what you need in that moment.

"Underneath bear is salmon, the life-giver. Salmon is the one who gave up his life, his flesh, so that people could live. He allows everyone to stay full over winter."

"On the lower right-hand side is eagle, who is messenger to "tqueltkukwpi7", or creator. And right above eagle is coyote, or "sk'lep", who is kind of the trickster, or teacher. There's always a message or something to learn from coyote."

A fine arts graduate of Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, Jules says she has zero plans to move away from Kamloops.

"My roots are here, my family is here, my friends are here," she says. "My life is really here, and I enjoy my family. I don't want to move anywhere else anytime soon."

Looking for an Orange Shirt Day tee? Check to make sure it's an approved shirt, which means a portion of the proceeds from the sale goes to the Orange Shirt Society or charities that support the purposes of the Orange Shirt Society. You can get a list of vendors who are selling approved tees, including one by Grade 11 Cree First Nation student Shayne Hommy of Dawson Creek, on the Orange Shirt Day website.

Great reads, films, and podcasts: Learn about Indigenous culture

Michelle Good's award-winning first novel Five Little Indians tells the tale of five residential school survivors as they look back at their experiences in a remote, church-run school and try to navigate new paths once released into the world outside.

Earlier this year, we also published a list of recommended books, movies and podcasts for those interested in getting a better perspective on Indigenous culture. Read that story here.