Phyllis Webstad started the Orange Shirt Society and is helping raise awareness of the generational impacts of residential schools. (Medicine Wheel Publishing photo)

Phyllis Webstad started the Orange Shirt Society and is helping raise awareness of the generational impacts of residential schools. (Medicine Wheel Publishing photo)

Founder of Orange Shirt Day details her healing journey

Phyllis Webstad is the leader of a movement

Tanara Oliveira/News Staff

When we think of being important, the people who come to mind are usually our family.

We want to matter to them.

Once this is achieved, society – often in the form of school, church and work – becomes the focus and we start from a place where we struggle to matter to other people beyond our family circle. And one of the moments when we most want to show our worth is when we’re little and on our first day of school.

That’s what Phyllis Webstad wanted to feel when she went to the St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School in Williams Lake, B.C. in 1973. She wanted to feel that she mattered, and she prepared herself carefully.

“We never had very much money, but somehow my granny managed to buy me a new outfit to go to the Mission school,” Webstad said. “I remember going to Robinson’s store and picking out a shiny orange shirt. It had string laced up in front, and was so bright and exciting – just like I felt to be going to school. When I got to the mission, they stripped me and took away my clothes, including the orange shirt. I never wore it again. I didn’t understand why they wouldn’t give it back to me, it was mine.”

And just like that, with a brutal, yet symbolic act, Webstad began her journey at a notorious residential school. There she came to believe that she didn’t matter, and surviving all the horrors of that place became rule number one.

Years later, when her son Jeremy was born, Webstad felt all alone.

“As my grandmother and mother each went to residential school for 10 years, I never knew what a parent was supposed to be like,” said Webstad. “With the help of my aunt, Agness Jack, I managed to raise my son and make him know me as his mother.

Webstad worked to raise her son to build a legacy that would allow Jeremy, years later, to be a present father to his children.

After this, she began her healing process.

“I went to a treatment centre for healing when I was 27 and have been on this healing journey since then,” Webstad said. “I finally get it, that the feeling of worthlessness and insignificance, ingrained in me from my first day at the mission affected the way I lived my life for many years. Even now, when I know nothing could be further than the truth, I still sometimes feel that I don’t matter. Even with all the work I’ve done.”

Despite all the pain of the past, Webstad graduated from both the Nicola Valley Institute of Technology and Thompson Rivers University.

Webstad is also the creator of the Orange Shirt Society, responsible for Orange Shirt Day, and the author of three books. This movement, which has been embraced for 10 years, brought together former students and their families from the Secwepemc, Tsilhqot’in, South Dakelh and St’at’imc nations, along with the Cariboo Regional District, the mayors and municipalities, school districts and civic organizations in the Cariboo region.

Each Sept. 30, Orange Shirt Day sparks a discussion about residential schools and the treatment of Indigenous people in Canada.

Orange Shirt Day allows Canadians to have important conversations, building bridges and promoting reconciliation. This day reminds survivors and others touched by residential schools that their stories matter. No matter their age, as the saying goes, every child matters.

“I am honoured to be able to tell my story so that others may benefit and understand, and maybe other survivors will feel comfortable enough to share their stories,” said Webstad.

READ MORE: Stories about truth and reconciliation

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