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Walking side by side on a journey of reconciliation

A student-led Orange Shirt Day event encourages participants to act and reflect on social justice and health equity issues

May 07, 2016, By: Donna Martin, RN, PhD, Elaine Mordoch, RN, PhD, Kendra Rieger, RN, BN
Group of participants wearing Every Child Matters t-shirts
Lai Chun Yee, College of Nursing, University of Manitoba.

In Manitoba in 2011, 14 per cent of the population self-identified as having Indigenous ancestry (Statistics Canada, 2013). Given the complexities underlying the health status of Indigenous peoples, it is essential that nursing students and nurses understand the legacy of colonialism, including residential schools and their impact on the health of Indigenous people. Failure to recognize the potential and actual multi-generational harm caused by residential schools hinders healing and reconciliation and perpetuates oppressive health-care policies and practices (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015).

To promote better understanding, the University of Manitoba’s Nursing Students’ Association (NSA) and the Canadian Nursing Students’ Association signed a pledge in 2014 to formally acknowledge the residential school experience, recognize the impact of colonialism on health and social outcomes among Indigenous people and commit to promote culturally safe care in current and future nursing practice. Also that year, the University of Manitoba’s college of nursing hosted the Legacy of Hope Foundation exhibition “We Were So Far Away: The Inuit Experience of Residential Schools” on campus, featuring poignant and powerful images and recollections.

Wanting to build on the discussions and interest the exhibition generated, four members of NSA decided to organize and hold on-campus activities on Orange Shirt Day (Sept. 30) to continue raising awareness about the legacy of residential schools. Orange Shirt Day, now recognized across Canada, grew out of Phyllis (Jack) Webstad’s account of having her new orange shirt taken away on the first day of school at the St. Joseph Mission in Williams Lake, B.C. (Indian Residential School Survivors Society, n.d.). Donning these shirts has become a national symbol to honour residential school survivors and their families. These four students selected one of the ideas other groups and organizations were using to mark the special day: an awareness walk.

The students and this article’s authors (two faculty members from the college of nursing and a doctoral candidate in the college) came together to brainstorm about a funding proposal that would support a student-led walk. This group sought the advice of the elder-in-residence at the Centre for Aboriginal Health Education to ensure the event would be culturally respectful and meaningful.


The elder-in-residence joined us in mentoring the students through the process of funding application and event planning and implementation. Once financial support from the nursing endowment fund was confirmed, the planning committee met regularly over a five-month period to establish a detailed plan. The dean of the college of nursing and the university president were immediately supportive. The students began recruiting volunteers from among their classmates to help with all the required tasks.

The planning committee issued an invitation during orientation week to other nursing students and faculty and to residential school survivors and their families to participate in the walk. Social media, posters, information booths and word of mouth were used. Participants would receive an orange T-shirt featuring the Every Child Matters slogan and the image of a turtle (symbolizing truth), designed by a local Indigenous artist. A tent would be erected on the university grounds as a place where participants could gather after the walk.

The elder-in-residence shared that survivors or family members might experience emotional distress during the activities, so a private room was set up where Indigenous counsellors were available for debriefing and support.

Media engagement was key to raising public awareness of the event, and the NSA Indigenous representative volunteered to be interviewed by the local media. The other committee members participated in a mock interview to prepare her for the experience.

On Sept. 30, 2015, following an opening prayer by the elder-in-residence, a ceremonial drummer and singer led the procession of more than 150 participants on the walk. The pre-planned route, on campus pedways, had stops at significant landmarks. One of these was the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, where a representative formally accepted a signed and framed pledge from the NSA students.

At the conclusion, participants gathered at the tent that had been erected near the Helen Glass Centre for Nursing. In their presentations to the group, the university president and the college dean commended the students for their initiative and honoured the survivors and their families. In keeping with traditional Indigenous practices, a feast had been organized for the participants, and it was enjoyed by all.

Afterward, on designated “graffiti walls” in the Helen Glass centre, participants were given coloured markers and encouraged to express their thoughts and feelings about the events and the knowledge they had gained. Questions meant to inspire reflection had been posted at the site. Two Indigenous artists added visual depictions of their own experiences as residential school survivors. Throughout the day, survivors and family members conversed easily with nursing students and faculty, sharing their personal histories and memorabilia. Some survivors chose the private room as the place to share their stories one on one with students.

Results and lessons learned

Survivors and family members came together with nursing students and faculty in the spirit of reconciliation. The testimonials and illustrations drawn on the graffiti walls demonstrated the extent to which the nursing students were emotionally impacted by what they had learned from their walking partners. The strengths and resilience of the survivors had astounded them.

Immediately following the event, the planning committee met to debrief about their interpretations of the activities. They were extremely pleased with the success of the event and were congratulated by faculty members for organizing a meaningful and respectful event.

We conducted a thematic analysis of the drawings and textual data on the graffiti walls and found indications of profound transformational learning.

Nursing students witnessed the power and beauty of experiential learning, arts-based pedagogy and community engagement, and they were introduced to the potential of mentorship to facilitate lifelong learning.

All members of the planning committee learned the importance of communicating clearly and effectively and of enlisting a sufficient number of volunteers to handle all the required tasks. Although there were concerns early on that some of the graffiti might not be appropriate, this proved not to be the case. It was beneficial to have the private room available as a place to initiate and continue conversations.

Having the advice of an elder-in-residence throughout this project highly contributed to the event’s success. As well, the involvement of the community of survivors and their families brought special meaning.

We intend to hold the awareness walk annually to provide opportunities for subsequent groups of nursing students to gain awareness of the legacy of colonialism and experience respectful ways to honour residential school survivors. We hope that other groups of Canadian nursing students and nurses may be inspired to organize similar events and to sign pledges of their own. Honouring survivors and their families and acknowledging that Canada’s history continues to have an impact on the health of Indigenous people are important first steps in the journey toward reconciliation.


The authors thank the four NSA members: Maria Cortes-Toro, Hannah Curtis, Heather Waloschuk and Jessica Loeppky. They acknowledge artists Nadine McDougall, Elaine McIntosh and Justina McKay; elder-in-residence Margaret Lavallee; and Amanda Penzick of the Centre for Aboriginal Health Education for their contributions, as well as the nursing endowment fund for its support.


Indian Residential School Survivors Society. (n.d.). Orange Shirt Day.

Statistics Canada. (2013). Aboriginal Peoples in Canada: First Nations People, Métis and Inuit: National household survey, 2011.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015). Honouring the truth, reconciling for the future: Summary of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

Donna Martin, RN, PhD, is an assistant professor, college of nursing, University of Manitoba, with research interests in Indigenous peoples’ health, social justice and health equity.
Elaine Mordoch, RN, PhD, is an associate professor, college of nursing, University of Manitoba, whose teaching and research interests include mental health nursing, cultural diversity and family mental health. 
Kendra Rieger, RN, BN, is a doctoral candidate, college of nursing, University of Manitoba. She is a recipient of a Canadian Institutes of Health Research Frederick Banting and Charles Best Canada Graduate Scholarships Doctoral Award. Her research interests focus on arts-based pedagogy.