There was First Nations drumming, dancing and a sea of orange as hundreds of Victoria elementary school students came together to mark Orange Shirt Day.

“It’s important because this girl that went to residential school had a favourite shirt and it was orange and she wasn’t allowed to wear it,” says Oaklands Elementary School student Alisha Charlie. “They took it away from her.”

Orange Shirt Day, which is held every September 30th, honours residential school survivors and recognizes the harm Canada’s residential school system had on generations of Indigenous families.

Many Vancouver Island schools marked the occasion on Friday. At Oaklands Elementary School, they held a special assembly to share stories about hope and healing and taking steps toward reconciliation.

“It’s important that we not only think about the past, which was rather sad and depressing but also look to the future and to think about hope and reconciliation and action for change,” says Oaklands vice-principal Amei Mai.

Orange Shirt Day was started in 2013 and in the last five years, it’s raised a great deal of awareness about the residential school legacy.

But decades after this dark time in Canadian history, how far have we come? Where are we at with reconciliation?

“I think we’re still in the beginning stages of it,” says University of Victoria Indigenous governance associate professor Jeff Corntassel. “There were 94 recommendations that were issued by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015 and really, only 10 have been acted on.”

The controversial removal of the Sir John A. Macdonald statue from Victoria City Hall last month sparked an outcry across the country.

Taking away the monument to Canada’s first prime minister because of how he treated First Nations was meant to foster better relations but instead, it led to divisive debate.

“I think there’s racism that’s simmering,” says Corntassel. “I think it’s expressed in the comment section but also in some of the surveys and it’s expressed maybe in sometimes willful ignorance about reconciliation.”

Corntassel says combating ignorance is key. He also says dealing with critical issues, such as the number of First Nations kids currently in government care, needs to be a priority so that hopefully by next Orange Shirt Day, more concrete steps have been taken towards reconciliation.

Tess van Straaten