I remember being 6 years old on my first day of school in 1957, dressed in a new red dress, saddle shoes and white ankle socks and pretty ribbons in my hair. The photo my mom took that day shows a little girl with a big gap-toothed grin. I loved school, I loved to learn and my teacher was kind. That experience set me up for a lifelong love of learning.
Phyllis Webstad also remembers being 6 years old in 1973, and her first day of school. She was wearing a shiny new orange shirt bought by her grandmother, but the similarities end there. Her beautiful shirt, along with her self-esteem, was torn away on arrival at the residential school and the nuns were anything but kind. She didn’t understand why they took away her shirt, but she learned very quickly that she didn’t matter. The trauma of that experience is still with her today.
As parents, our emotions are mixed as we send our babies off to school; We wonder at how fast they are growing up, and their pride in their readiness for new adventures and we feel a little anxiety as we turn them over to strangers. We take pictures of them dressed up for their first day, and we expect the new adults in their lives will guide and nurture them on their learning journey.
Imagine sending your children off to school, understanding they will be taught they are inferior and their parents are wicked heathens. They will lose their clothing, their hair, their ability to speak their language and even their names. Punishments will be harsh and they will be hungry most of the time. Imagine knowing refusal or resistance could result in jail or worse, all just because you were born Indigenous. Then picture your community with no children.
Related: Read our latest Aug/Sept 2021 issue here
Phyllis is Northern Secwepmc from Stswecem’c Xgat’tem (Canoe Creek/Dog Creek) First Nation. She and her cousins were the third generation to attend St. Joseph’s Mission Indian Residential School in Williams Lake, BC. Her grandmother attended the same school for 10 years, as did each of her 10 children. Phyllis says that her experience was “a walk in the park” compared to theirs, as she only attended for 1 year, and she doesn’t remember receiving harsh punishment. She didn’t go to school at the institution as the children were bussed into public school by the time she attended, and she remembers a kind teacher.
In 2013, Phyllis was asked to speak on behalf of the former students of the Mission, at a press conference in Williams Lake. She found the courage to share her traumatic first day, and the seed for Orange Shirt Day was planted. The first Orange Shirt Day was held on September 30th that year, and it has since grown into an international movement. September 30, 2021 will be the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, a federal statutory holiday. Orange has now become the colour which expresses our support for residential school survivors and grief for those who did not survive.
Phyllis and her cousins are both intergenerational survivors, and direct survivors. Two generations ahead of them deprived of family, community and culture meant that they never learned parenting skills, or to express love for their children. Phyllis’s son, Jeremy, was born when she was just 13 years old, and she credits her aunt with giving her the strength and support that enabled her to raise him while still a child herself.
Phyllis and her family are among the estimated 150,000 Indigenous children in Canada who were separated from their parents, and taken to residential schools funded by the federal government and operated by the churches. Many suffered emotional, physical and sexual abuse, and it is estimated that at least 6,000 died. There were 139 such schools across Canada, and the last one did not close until 1997.
Today, Phyllis is married and a grandmother of five. She is the Ambassador/Founder of the Orange Shirt Society, and dedicates her life to raising awareness of the impacts of the residential school system. She has written three books, and co-authored a fourth. She is a powerful speaker, presenting to students of all ages and to corporate and government staff. She says she is honoured and humbled, knowing her story has become the catalyst for reconciliation and learning about the residential schools.
Wearing an orange shirt shows you acknowledge the ongoing harms of the residential schools, it expresses your solidarity with Indigenous people as they continue to heal and it sends the message that “Every Child Matters.” Phyllis and the Orange Shirt Society have turned the trauma of her first day of school into a defiant symbol of taking back her power along with her shirt.
“The government that did this to us will never go to jail for what they did. Whenever I see someone wearing an orange shirt and witness children in schools learning about what happened to us, it feels like a little bit of justice in our lifetime.”
– Phyllis Webstad