Orange Blooms in Thunder Bay

Story by Leah Morningstar, Photos provided by Lori Armstrong

The bright orange shirt—based on the orange shirt that was taken away from young Phyllis Webstad when she started attending residential school in Williams Lake, BC—honours both the experience of survivors, and the children who died at school or trying to get home. Wearing an orange shirt or displaying an orange shirt is a declaration that every child matters.

Last summer, Mark Jeffery and his wife Lori Armstrong were encouraged to see so many orange shirts popping up all over the city. But like many awareness campaigns, it’s often hard to keep the momentum going once the initial interest has quieted. “I felt like I needed to do something to keep the interest going, but as a non-Indigenous person, I didn’t want to step out of my lane or jump in and put my voice where it wasn’t invited,” Jeffery says.

Early in 2022, the Thunder Bay Horticulture Society encouraged residents to plant red flowers to honour Canada. Cities across Canada have been called to plant red in the spring, leading to a nation-wide bloom of red by July 1. When Jeffery heard this, it made him sad and angry. He said there are so many more residential school sites to examine. “It just felt wrong to think about displaying Canadian pride when so many more children need to be found and returned home,” he says. He couldn’t stop thinking about what he could do to expand the orange shirt campaign into something beautiful and meaningful for Indigenous people in and around Thunder Bay. Jeffery thought about the orange shirts and the call for red flowers and posed the simple question: “Why not orange flowers?”

Why not orange flowers, indeed. Jeffery began using social media to let local Thunder Bay people know about his idea to plant orange flowers everywhere. Then he began raising funds to purchase seeds. Jeffery’s hope was to buy enough seeds, particularly the popular and hardy California poppy seeds, so that he could hand them out freely to whoever might be interested.

At this point, planting season is just around the corner. Jeffery says that each library in town has been provided with hundreds of packets of California poppy seeds, available for free. He’s not sure how fast the seeds will go, but reassures the readers that he hopes to be back with seeds again next year.

April in Thunder Bay means the weather is getting warmer and the sun is getting brighter. Pretty soon the trees will be budding and gardens will be growing. As you drive around Thunder Bay this summer and fall, you’re likely to see a lot of red blooming. But keep your eyes open for the orange t-shirts that are still hanging and make note of the orange flowers. Jeffery wants to keep raising awareness about residential schools and, like many of us, is hopeful more awareness will lead to greater action by the Canadian government to do right by the survivors.

For more information, check out @orangethunderbay on Instagram.