With Truth and Reconciliation Day on Sept. 30 right around the corner, Toys ‘R’ Us tapped a young Sudbury actor to design orange shirts to be sold nationally in recognition of the day.
Phoenix Wilson is a familiar name in Sudbury due to his acting career, featured in films including Two Lovers and a Bear and Indian Horse, and television shows including Longmire, Letterkenny, Jaxon and Song’s Maple Mysteries and Hard Rock Medical.
In 2022, his name became part of a children’s book, Phoenix Gets Greater written by his mother, Marti Wilson-Trudeau, who is also a dramatic arts teacher.
Wilson-Trudeau, who spoke on her son’s behalf because she said he was at school, said it was the book that drew the attention of the creative team at Toys ‘R’ Us.
“The head of marketing actually saw Phoenix in a couple of movies and TV shows and she was aware of him when the book came out,” she said. “She was a pretty big fan of his.”
From there, Wilson-Trudeau said Phoenix was asked to create a shirt for Truth and Reconciliation Day, also known as Orange Shirt Day, and was given nearly complete creative control on the design.
For the design, Wilson-Trudeau said Phoenix didn’t want to be “stereotypical,” which is reflected in the Toys ‘R’ Us marketing material for the shirt.
“I wanted to create something authentic,” Phoenix is quoted saying. “Without using stereotypical feather designs, or using the handprint that symbolizes other Indigenous organizations.”
The design consists of two paper dolls, representing the government’s desire to assimilate Indigenous people to European culture. They are bordered in a braid of sweetgrass, one of the four sacred medicines, and the dates “1831-1996” appear below. They represent the year the first school opened, and the year the last school closed.
Both Wilson-Trudeau's parents and Phoenix’s father’s parents were survivors of residential schools. They shared some stories about what they went through, and Wilson-Trudeau said she has always been very open with her children about their history.
That also includes her child’s understanding of two-spirit people, which is how Phoenix identifies.
Two-spirit refers to Indigenous people who hold the spirit of both genders.
When Phoenix began speaking to his mother about how he felt inside, she told him how revered two-spirit people are in Anishnaabe traditions.
”He always knew that these two-spirit individuals were honored in our culture, and it was nothing to be ashamed of,” she said. “And that's the most important part … just be authentically yourself.”
Phoenix is now studying art and design at George Brown College in Toronto.
For more information on Truth and Reconciliation Day, also known as Orange Shirt Day, visit the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation website here.
Jenny Lamothe covers vulnerable and marginalized communities for Sudbury.com.