Photo: Phyllis Webstad
…a day to recognize former residential school students, their losses, and the impacts residential school made on a child’s self-esteem.
When she was just six-years-old, Phyllis Webstad—now 47—remembers when her grandmother purchased a brand new orange shirt for her. Webstad recalls how the shirt was adorned with eyelets and lace and how she couldn’t wait to wear the new orange shirt to school. But that feeling of excitement didn’t last long.
It was 1973 and Webstad was on her way to St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School located in Williams Lake, British Columbia. Immediately upon arrival, school staff took her new orange shirt away and Webstad never saw it again. From that moment on and throughout her life, the colour orange came to symbolize how her feelings never mattered or that no one seemed to care—until recently.
When Webstad, a member of the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation, shared this experience at a St. Joseph’s Mission reunion in spring 2013, the story of the orange shirt went global. From now on, September 30th is marked as Orange Shirt Day – Every Child Matters. It’s become a day to recognize former residential school students, their losses, and the impacts residential school made on a child’s self-esteem. It is also a day to remember those who didn’t come home from the schools.
Last year, Orange Shirt Day was observed across Canada but even reached as far as Italy and in the Swedish Parliament. “When I hear people say there are really no words, there are really no words,” says Webstad about the overwhelming response to Orange Shirt Day. “I’m humbled and honoured.”
This year Williams Lake, British Columbia will commemorate the day with a harmony parade, musical performances, and speeches, to children’s activities. It is expected many First Nation communities and Canadians will also participate. Orange ribbons will be distributed on the Onion Lake First Nation, Saskatchewan at a commemoration walk for residential school survivors. On the Orange Shirt Day – Every Child Matters’ Facebook page several resources and events have been posted.
Despite the success of Orange Shirt Day and the message it carries, the painful memories of residential schools have taken their toll on Webstad. “I ended up in the hospital with a major surgery,” she says. “My body couldn’t take it anymore.” Webstad says she was quietly suffering and going home to isolate herself. “I’m in counselling now,” says Webstad, who is now seeing a registered residential school therapist. “I almost did myself in there for awhile.” While in the hospital, Webstad even had thoughts of quitting Orange Shirt Day. “Looking at the Facebook page and [seeing] everybody having a conversation that they didn’t have before, how could I?”
It’s been a tough year for residential school survivors. Some lawyers were found to be taking advantage of survivors and while federal authorities finally tightened the rules as a means to protect former students, many lost huge chunks of their financial compensation.
St. Anne’s residential school survivors along the James Bay Coast faced a string of court hearings in order to obtain much-needed documents for their cases held by the federal government. Although they were finally released, many of the documents were heavily blacked out.
Within the past year, we saw the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings wrap up. Residential school survivors have made a total of 6,500 statements with the TRC. The commission was also extended by one year to complete its work including a final report that is to be finalized by June 2015. At the commission’s final national event, TRC chair Murray Sinclair remarked that reconciliation could only fall in the hands of Canadians, not solely with Indigenous peoples.
Despite these challenges, Webstad continues her work with Orange Shirt Day today. It is a day meant to honour residential school survivors and to teach Canadians and beyond. Already planning for next year’s event, Webstad is hoping to launch an Orange Shirt Day website similar to Culture Days; a large national event that celebrates all forms of art and culture. Webstad would like to see an interactive website showcasing activities across the country along with an online map. In the meantime, Webstad will continue to heal and celebrate Orange Shirt Day, even though she admits she’s still not fond of the colour orange.
Check out Orange Shirt Day – Every Child Matters on Facebook for more information: www.facebook.com/orangeshirtdayeverychildmatters