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‘I’m still not comfortable with it’: Orange Shirt Day founder reflects on decade of reconciliation work

Phyllis Webstad has been telling her story for 10 years. It’s taken a toll
Orange Shirt Society founder Phyllis Webstad is seen here attending a ceremony to launch the ground search at the former St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School near Williams Lake on Aug. 30, 2021. The idea for Orange Shirt Day started in April 2013. Photo: Monica Lamb-Yorski

Two years ago Phyllis Webstad felt the weight of her own story and wondered if it was time to write an ending.

In May 2021, Webstad was putting the finishing touches to Beyond The Orange Shirt Story, which collects the stories of six generations of her family before, during and after their experiences with residential schools.

It was traumatic work.

“When I finished it, I was a half an hour away from going to the hospital. Because I was just so impacted. My heart wouldn’t stop beating.”

To calm herself, Webstad did what she usually does and went for a long walk. It was raining in Williams Lake, and when she returned home she was soaking but felt better.

Then, three days later, the remains of 215 children were found at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. Webstad’s necessary work, she decided, would have to continue.

For a decade Webstad, who is Northern Secwpemc of the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation, has travelled the country talking about her years in a residential school. Her story is well told.

When Webstad was six years old she was sent to St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School outside Williams Lake in 1973. On her first day, Webstad was wearing an orange shirt that was a gift from her grandmother when it was taken by school staff.

In April 2013, Webstad had been mulling over ideas for a talk she was to give at St. Joseph’s when she remembered the orange shirt. The tale went viral, and in the ensuing decade she has popularized orange shirts as a symbol of reconciliation in Canada, inspired Orange Shirt Day or National Day for Truth and Reconciliation that is observed every Sept. 30, and created the slogan Every Child Matters.

In that time, Webstad has felt a purpose to her work.

“I’ve always said that from the very beginning it’s always been divinely guided, that the ancestors and the children are behind this. For whatever reason, my story was chosen to be the one that is put out there to start the conversation.”

But as her responsibilities have increased, so has the personal cost she’s endured.

The Orange Shirt Society, which began with Webstad on her own, has grown to a staff of seven. She spends much of her year on the road at speaking engagements, and is currently putting the finishing touches on her fifth book, titled Every Child Matters, that will release in August.

The society is also in its second year of organizing the Orange Jersey Project, which teaches the history of residential schools through sports programming. In 2022, Webstad says the society provided 250 orange jerseys to teams. This year it will be 750.

Webstad said the society is also now having to police the use of the phrase Every Child Matters. In February 2022 it was adopted without consent by organizers of the Freedom Convoy, which in turn was denounced by Webstad and the Northern Secwépemc te Qelmucw Chiefs.

Now, at age 55, Webstad says she dreams of the day she will be free of her own story. She wants to complete her work and then live a life that doesn’t require her to be a public figure.

“I’ve been uncomfortable since 2013, and I’m still not comfortable with it.”

But she’s working on it. Webstad has started collaborating with the International Indigenous Speakers Bureau to help trim material from her presentations. She’s also producing videos she hopes will serve to tell her story without the need for the hardships of constant travel and in-person talks.

She’s also finding hope at home.

In just three years, the graduating class of School District 27 in Williams Lake will be the first to have received 13 years of public education that includes residential school history in the curriculum.

Webstad’s son, who attended one of the last residential schools before they were finally shut down in 1996, has five children. Watching her grandchildren grow up with their parents and unburdened by over a century of cultural genocide, she says, has been beautiful to witness and gives her optimism for the future.

“I have a seven-year-old grandson and some of the conversations we have and some of the things he comes up with is like, oh my god, this is what a human can be if they’re not oppressed and put down.”


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