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Orange Shirt Day founder tirelessly helps others learn about the atrocities of residential schools

Phyllis Webstad, a Residential School Survivor, and the founder of Orange Shirt Day has inspired many people to raise awareness about the horrors of residential schools and their impact on Indigenous children and families throughout Canada.
Phyllis Webstad is dedicated to creating more awareness about Indian Residential Schools and building on the reconciliation process.

(ANNews) – Phyllis Webstad, a Residential School Survivor, and the founder of Orange Shirt Day has inspired many people to raise awareness about the horrors of residential schools and their impact on Indigenous children and families throughout Canada. She started the event locally and it blossomed to what it is today through social media, and now, as of 2021, it has become a National public holiday called The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation and is celebrated each year on September 30.

Phyllis Webstad is a Northern Secwepemc from the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation in British Columbia. She was raised on the Dog Creek Reserve by her granny until the age of ten. As a small child, she spent summers down by the Fraser River catching sockeye salmon at night. In the mornings, they would get up and gut the fish, cut them up and put them on the drying rack. Phyllis’ granny didn’t have a paying job, but she had three gardens in the valley and a cellar for storing food. They also did a lot of berry picking. Phyllis grew up eating traditional foods and it was happy times for her.

Phyllis’ mom and dad were not around, and she always had a feeling of abandonment, but felt safe with her granny. Her aunt took over raising her after she completed her Bachelor of Arts at the University of Victoria. Phyllis credits her aunt for instilling in her to be self-supportive and make changes to stop the intergenerational trauma in her family.

Phyllis has one son and five grandchildren. Her grandchildren are the first in five generations to be raised by both their mother and father. Phyllis is so proud of her eldest grandson who just received his certification to be a paramedic.

Phyllis’ great-grandmother was born in 1880, four years after the Indian Act came into force in Canada. Phyllis said that her great-grandmother grew up being bossed around by older white men, the Indian Agents, and she brought her granny to the St. Joseph Mission Residential School so that she could learn to read and write and get out of the oppression. She did not know the true impact the schools would have.

When Phyllis turned six years old on July 13, 1973, her granny also prepared her to attend the same school that she and Phyllis’ mother attended for ten years each. Her granny took Phyllis to town to buy something new to wear for her first day of school and Phyllis chose a beautiful shiny orange shirt.

In the Fall, when Phyllis was left at St. Joseph’s, her clothes were taken away, including the new orange shirt that her grandmother bought for her, and they were never returned. This made Phyllis sad. She said, “I spent a lot of time crying, realizing that nobody was going to come for me, and nobody was going to make it better. I felt stuck there.” Phyllis said she focused on disassociating her spirit from her physical body and going to her happier place, at the garden with her granny. Those were the memories that held her through at residential school that year.

Phyllis said, “That one year that I was there, I felt that I did not matter. I could be sick, we could be sick, hungry, tired, lonely, sad and there wasn’t enough adults to go around and make it better. So, as a result, I learned to disassociate, I learned to leave my body and I could go anywhere I wanted, which was back to the reserve with granny in her garden and by the river.”

Phyllis said that every child matters, no matter what colour of the medicine wheel you are. Everyone is encouraged to wear an orange shirt on September 30 to recognize and symbolize how the residential school system attempted to take away the Indigenous identities of children. The phrase “Every Child Matters” holds a deep significance, capturing the collective commitment to truth, reconciliation, and ensuring that the atrocities of the past are never repeated.

Phyllis takes every opportunity to tell her story and the truth about residential schools. She says it is hard for her, but when she shares, it is so important for others to learn and understand the atrocities of the past. Phyllis is committed to doing this work no matter how hard it is but needs to learn how to take better care of herself as it does take a toll on her.

Phyllis has written five books, including a picture book depicting her experience with the residential school system. Her book, The Orange Shirt Story, recounts her first day of school when her shirt was taken away. Her other books are Phyllis’ Orange Shirt, which encourages awareness and understanding of the history of residential schools; With Our Orange Hearts, which emphasizes the importance of cultural experiences and the legacy of the St. Joseph Mission Residential School Commemoration Project; Beyond The Orange Shirt Story, a six generational story with her families history that is geared towards adults; and, Every Child Matters, in which Phyllis shares her own orange shirt story, aiming to educate and raise awareness about the historic residential school system.

In September 2021, Phyllis won the First Nation Communities Read Award for best Indigenous literature for her book Beyond The Orange Shirt Story. Through her books, she wants young learners to recognize the strength of Indigenous Communities and the ongoing journey toward justice and reconciliation.

Phyllis is also involved in The Orange Jersey Project. It is a program of the Orange Shirt Society, headed up by her son. The project focuses on bringing conversations and education on the Indian Residential School System in Canada through sport and is a partnership with the Western Hockey League (WHL).

Phyllis said, “As I think about my grandchildren, I think about all those other children just like them who didn’t go home to their families and are buried in dirt somewhere. Today, our Indigenous youth are finally being allowed to be who they were meant to be. We should be supporting them as they can be anything that they want. They should follow their guts and heart. They can do anything.”

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