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Designers warn to avoid orange shirts exploiting Indigenous art ahead of Sept. 30

·3 min read
Orange shirts with the description ‘Every Child Matters’ is pictured for sale at a London Drugs store in Vancouver, B.C. on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021.  (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
Orange shirts with the description ‘Every Child Matters’ is pictured for sale at a London Drugs store in Vancouver, B.C. on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

Indigenous designers are cautioning people wishing to mark the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation by wearing an orange shirt to avoid vendors looking to turn a profit while purporting to represent Indigenous causes.

Sept. 30 will mark the first new federal statutory holiday, which was approved by Parliament days after the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation confirmed the discovery of roughly 200 potential burial sites, likely of children, on the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.

The day has been marked in past years as Orange Shirt Day, originally started in 2013. The day honours residential school survivor Phyllis Webstad, who had her orange shirt taken away on the first day of school.

Tina Taphouse, an Interior Salish photographer and designer from St'át'imc Territory in B.C., is one of many Indigenous artists who have created their own shirt designs ahead of Sept. 30.

For Taphouse, the day, and her own designs, are deeply personal — she has family members who were forced to attend residential school in Kamloops, some of whom never returned.

"I make these shirts to honour my mum and dad who both attended residential schools, my aunties and uncles and all of my family," she said.

She said with each sale, she has a conversation with her customers about what the day will represent — a step that feels to her like an act of reconciliation.

"It's mostly non-Indigenous people that are buying my shirt and a lot of them would like to buy from an Indigenous artist," she said.

"They like that I'm open to talking to them. I like to talk to each one of them and answer any questions that they have because sometimes it's sensitive and they don't know what they can ask."

Photos submitted by Tina Taphouse
Photos submitted by Tina Taphouse

Taphouse said there are many Indigenous artists across Canada who, like her, are selling their own designs and donating the proceeds to Indigenous organizations. London Drugs is also an official vendor for Orange Shirt Day, with all profits from the shirts going to the Orange Shirt society.

But online vendors with no connection to Indigenous causes have also popped up on sites like Facebook, Amazon and Etsy, in many cases featuring art stolen from First Nations artists.

Facebook said in statements to CBC News that it has taken action against some sites selling orange shirts, but could not confirm how many have been taken down. Amazon said it will be donating to National Day for Truth and Reconciliation and is working with the Orange Shirt Society on a process to ensure that only authorized sellers can sell the society's products, though dozens of unauthorized vendors remain active on Amazon.

Keith Henry, CEO of Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada, said he's disappointed but not surprised to see that companies are cashing in on a day that is supposed to be about reconciliation.

"There's a lot of organizations and companies that have gotten into the commercial space of selling orange t-shirts because it's in the national interest and millions of t-shirts will be bought," he said.

"It's not a surprise — Indigenous artwork is exploited by the billions every year."

Henry said he hopes companies selling Indigenous designs for profit will ask themselves how they are involved in pushing reconciliation forward — or halt those sales.

"What are they putting back into the Indigenous community, how are they contributing to supporting residential school reconciliation, do they have Indigenous staff, have they provided proper resources for the Indigenous artwork that's on that shirt?" he said.

"If you can't answer that clearly, then you clearly aren't supporting reconciliation in the way that we would like to see it."

Taphouse said she encourages Canadians to support Indigenous artists, whose work is a culmination of the history being acknowledged on Sept. 30.

"Our art is inspired by many generations and our ancestors. My mum recently passed away and she sat here and watched me make the shirts — and so I like to honour her and know she's sitting here with me."

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