When Phyllis Webstad was a young child growing up on a Secwépemc reserve, she says she often felt alone while her siblings went off to residential school – she was even excited for her turn to attend, a group of New Westminster students heard.
That excitement was short-lived after she began attending the school starting in September 1973. To prepare for her first day, the young Webstad bought a special orange shirt, which would later become the inspiration for the national symbol for survivors of the residential school system.
The symbol is perhaps a perfect analogy for the legacy of residential schools – that shirt, an expression of her identity and a product of her innocence, was taken away from her almost immediately after she arrived. In its stead, she was given the same generic clothing that all her peers were given, their individuality stripped away by the schools.
To kick off a week of reconciliation-oriented activities, students at New Westminster Secondary School heard a presentation from Webstad, the creator of Orange Shirt Day, on Thursday, Sept. 19.
Webstad told students her story of growing up in the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation south of Williams Lake and her year at the St. Joseph Mission residential school in Williams Lake.
For Webstad, the orange shirt became a personal symbol, and four decades after her experience in residential school, turned into a national symbol for survivors of Canada’s residential schools.
Residential schools are widely acknowledged as part of a cultural genocide committed against Indigenous Peoples throughout the country. Officials at the schools physically and mentally beat Indigenous cultures out of students as a means toward forced assimilation.
Webstad said she got off easy, having only attended residential schools for one year, but added that the experience caused significant anguish for her family.
Webstad’s mother was kicked out of the community by the “Indian agent,” a representative of the government who enforced authoritarian rule over Indigenous communities, so she was largely raised by her grandmother.
Around when she and her siblings turned five years old, her grandmother would begin to distance herself from that child, Webstad said.
“I used to cry and feel sorry for myself. … ‘Nobody loves me; nobody cares about me,’ ” Webstad said.
“There were a couple of reasons for that. One of them was Granny had to prepare her heart to lose her children, 10 of them, child after child, year after year. She had to do that for her own sanity. And the second reason is she had to prepare that five-year-old, soon to be six, to be kidnapped and taken away from her.”
The week of reconciliation activities will end with Orange Shirt Day on Sept. 30.