Working towards reconciliation, this Cowichan Valley woman wears orange every day

‘We cannot forget and we cannot be complacent,’ Hina Charania says about the legacy of residential ‘schools.’

This article contains content about residential “schools” that may be triggering. Support is available. Call the Indian Residential School Survivors Society at 1-800-721-0066 or 1-866-925-4419 for the 24-7 crisis line.

If you visited the Duncan Farmers Market this past year, you may have noticed Hina Charania at the Depot Dawgs food cart serving food and donning orange — usually in the form of a flower in her hair.

Last month, Charania hit a milestone — 215 days of wearing orange as a symbolic gesture. She says it is a form of quiet activism to support Indigenous people grappling with the loss and trauma associated with Canada’s residential “schools.” This act of love is one Charania continues to this day.

Charania is an immigrant and settler from Pakistan who moved to what is now called the Cowichan Valley 10 years ago. She first moved to Youbou and eventually made her way to Duncan with her family.

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“My standing joke is that I came from 22 million people to 22 million trees,” Charania says with a laugh.

The valley Charania now calls home is the territory of Coast Salish peoples — specifically the lands of the Quw’utsun, Ts’uubaa-asatx, Penelakut, Halalt, Lyackson, Stz’uminus, Malaht and Ditidaht peoples.

When she first arrived, Charania says she didn’t know anything about the history of so-called Canada. As an immigrant who was trying to integrate into society herself, she initially didn’t understand why some Indigenous people chose to distance themselves from non-Indigenous community members.

Related story: Why are First Nations and non-First Nations communities so separate?

Hina Charania wears an orange flower in her hair
Hina Charania wears an orange flower in her hair. Photo courtesy of Hina Charania

That is when Charania’s learning journey began. She engaged in conversation with community members — both settlers and Indigenous people — and read through articles and materials she could find online. She learned about systemic racism, the residential “school” system, settler history, intergenerational trauma and more. All of these things helped Charania build empathy so she could move forward with understanding and love.

“In the last 10 years I have drastically changed my opinion of Indigenous people,” Charania says. “And I’m still learning.”

Related story: Non-Indigenous people — here’s what you can do, right now

When Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc shared in May 2021 that 215 unmarked graves were discovered at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, Charania felt compelled to do something. At this point, she had already learned some information about residential “schools,” but this news was unfathomable to her. 

Even now as she talks about it her voice breaks in anger and sadness.

“That really, really upset me to a degree that even I didn’t know why,” Charania says. “These were children whose deaths were hidden. Their family members and parents did not know what happened to these children and they were just taken off the record like it’s no big deal … It’s just a really harsh thing to grapple with.”

It was also upsetting to Charania to learn that the country she has grown to love has such horrible crimes to answer to. She says it made her consider how colonization has benefitted her as a settler.

“But how do I reconcile how I’ve benefited from all these things [with] all of the bad things that have happened?” Charania asks.

She started off by acknowledging that she was wrong in her initial judgement of Indigenous people when first moving to Canada. Charania then considered how she could support Indigenous community members and settled on the idea of wearing orange, in some form, for 215 days.

She chose orange because of Orange Shirt Day, which takes place across the country annually on Sept. 30 to remember the residential “school” experience and honour its victims, survivors and their families. The day now coincides with the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. 

People are asked to wear orange and orange shirts on Sept. 30 to honour the story of residential “school” survivor Phyllis (Jack) Webstad who had her brand new orange shirt — bought by her grandmother — taken away on her first day at a residential “school” when she was six-years-old.

Related story: Thousands form sea of orange in Cowichan, marking first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation

“I wanted to show that this is not something that can be swept under the rug,” Charania says. “And if they tried to do it, people like me are going to speak out and not allow that to happen.”

Her anger and grief transformed into an act of support and love and an offering of her shoulder to lean on, Charania says.

But wearing something orange still didn’t feel like enough. Nearly halfway through her 215-day goal, Charania took her show of support one step further by having orange flower buds tattooed on her arm. This was a big move for Charania, who says that anything permanent on a person is frowned upon in her Muslim faith. 

The tattoo symbolized Charania’s grief and ultimate support but also served as a symbol of the “buds who were not allowed to bloom,” Charania says.

“It’s not just going to be 215 days that I did this. It’s now going to be forever,” Charania says. “I feel that this is something that is so important and that we need to take it seriously so I did this — not to get myself attention but to give attention to what the orange represents.”

Charania says wearing orange every day has served as an opportunity to engage in conversation with friends, family and community members about why she is doing so. It also encourages her to continue her own learning journey. 

Since the summer, the orange flower in her hair and now tattooed on her arm has become a constant in Charania’s life. Through birthdays and anniversaries, it has been there, reminding her that while it’s good to have things to celebrate, it’s also important to learn the truth and remember the past.

“We cannot forget and we cannot be complacent,” Charania says.

And when it comes to advice for other non-Indigenous community members who want to embark on a similar learning journey, Charania suggests starting with listening. She says it’s important to listen to people with lived experiences, if they’re willing to share, and let them know you’re there to stand behind and support them.

In terms of action, Charania says it’s up to each individual to decide how they want to speak up, but suggests asking elected officials to take immediate steps towards reconciliation.

“Ask what we can do now to be aware of what’s going on and do whatever is in our power to come out and say to our elected officials that this is not ok,” Charania says. “We have to do something to change.” [end]

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