MJ Singleton stands on the shore of a lake or river

Anishinaabe UTM student shares meaning behind winning Orange Shirt Day design

Ali Raza

For Anishinaabe and two-spirit University of Toronto Mississauga student MJ Singleton, part of truth and reconciliation is healing through intergenerational trauma and breaking the cycle. A lifelong artist, Singleton uses the medium of painting to express themselves and their heritage. 

To their surprise, Singleton recently won the U of T’s Orange Shirt Day design contest, which saw submissions from Indigenous students across the three campuses to commemorate Orange Shirt Day 2023. Also known as National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, it’s a day to recognize the destructive legacy of the Canadian Indian residential school system. 

“My grandma was a residential school survivor in Kenora, at St. Mary’s,” Singleton said. 

Singleton’s grandmother, along with seven other siblings, attended St. Mary’s Indian Residential School in Kenora. Growing up in Migisi Sahgaigan First Nation (Eagle Lake) between Kenora and Thunder Bay, Singleton grew up hearing stories of trauma and grief about their grandmother’s experience and how it affected generations to follow. 

“[The design] is about how someone feels for another person,” Singleton says. “How intergenerational trauma can be broken and healed for future generations.” 

“I wanted to showcase that even through you are hurt, you can still be strong for one another and be there for one another,” they add. 

Detail of the 2023 U of T Orange Shirt Day design

The design, entitled noojimo’iwe, Anishinaabemowin for “she heals,” emphasizes the importance of healing the intergenerational trauma of residential schooling by supporting and loving those around you. It portrays a mother holding hands and walking forward with her two children. Above them, a bright sun with contour lines connecting to floral patterns and designs representing all living things. 

Their recent design was additionally motivated by January 2023 findings of more than 170 plausible graves at St. Mary’s – where their grandmother attended. 

“It’s just heartbreaking to think of what my grandma would have gone through in her childhood,” Singleton says. 

The image of the mother clasping the hands of her two children was inspired by a family photo with their brother and mother. Singleton wasn’t even thinking of it while painting, but the image was ingrained in their mind. 

Singleton just finished their second year at UTM. They’re studying criminology, law and society with a minor in psychology. While initially attracted to UTM’s forensic science program, Singleton grew to like the professors in the criminology, law and society program and the prospects of a law career. 

While feeling overwhelmed in their first year, Singleton became involved at the Indigenous Centre at UTM, made new friends, and learned of the Orange Shirt Day design contest. 

“It really was an uplifting experience,” they said, “Especially when the Powwow came to UTM, that was really exciting, and all my friends were there.” 

Having won a similar contest in December 2022 for the Ontario Native Women’s Association, Singleton said it gave them the courage to try again with U of T’s contest. 

Singleton hopes to pursue Indigenous law to effect change for their community. 

The T-shirts with Singleton’s design are available while supplies last at the U of T Bookstore, with pre-orders available for bulk orders. Ten dollars from each $21.99 shirt will be directed to the Orange Shirt Day Society