Orange Shirt Day founder Phyllis Webstad was recently told she is a link for reconciliation between First Nations and non-First Nations in Canada.
While the suggestion is daunting, the 53-year-old member of the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation said she cannot help but think about a picture of a bridge hanging on her living room wall that her Aunt Agnes Jack purchased at a yard sale.
“The bridge is woven together with rope and tree roots,” she said. “It’s not pretty, it’s not perfect, but it’s enough that you could walk across it.”
Webstad said she keeps thinking about that.
“That’s been my life it seems because I grew up on the reserve, I’m half Secwepemc, I’m half white and I have lighter skin so I’ve been more readily accepted in the non-Indigenous community and I’ve been able to be a bridge builder or gap person.”
She described the time period since the announcement confirming the remains of 215 children buried at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School as a whirlwind.
“It’s like a huge awakening for non-Indigenous people, but at the same time collective healing for Indigenous people across Canada.”
In 2013 Webstad shared her story about arriving at St. Joseph’s Mission, the residential school near Williams Lake, and having a new orange shirt her grandmother bought her taken away.
She told her story in the spring and by September 30 of that year, the communities of Williams Lake and 100 Mile House recognized the first Orange Shirt Day.
Since then her experience has been shared with schools and organizations across Canada and last fall the Orange Shirt Society released a text book for Grade 5 students and older, titled Orange Shirt Day, which Webstad worked on with Joan Sorley.
Webstad also wrote a children’s book Phyllis’s Orange Shirt and her latest book, an autobiography Beyond the Orange Shirt Story will be released this fall and will be about six generations in her family.
“I didn’t set out to do this, but from the very beginning the whole Orange Shirt movement has been divinely guided. It’s like the ancestors are in charge and behind this movement and that’s what gives me the strength to continue.”
Webstad’s mom Rose Wilson gave birth to her in July 1967 at her grandmother Lena Jack’s home in Dog Creek.
She found her birth father in Kamloops a few years ago.
“I have eight other siblings, one passed away, so there are seven. They all live in Kamloops.”
While she was living at St. Joseph’s Mission she actually attended school at Marie Sharpe Elementary School in Williams Lake.
“Residential school at that time was a place we slept and ate at. We were all bussed into town to school.”
After one year, she left St. Joseph’s and was living with her Aunt Agnes Jack when at the age of 12, she got pregnant.
She gave birth to her son Jeremy Boston when she was in Grade 8 and was 13.8 years old.
“Those months are very important,” she said. “On my 14th birthday my son was four months old.”
Webstad credits her aunt for raising her and Jeremy.
“With her help — she raised both of us basically —he’s grown up to know me as his mother. I have five grandchildren now — three boys and two girls.”
She was never able to have any more children even though she wanted them.
Amidst the grief of last week, Bill C-5 received royal assent making Sept. 30 the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, something Webstad has been fighting for in recent years. She was one of the people who made a presentation about the bill to the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage in November 2020.
At the time she said passing the bill would be an important step in implementing action number 80 of the 94 Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which called on the federal government to establish the day to honour survivors of residential schools, their families and communities.
“I believe the seed of reconciliation has been planted and it needs to germinate just like a normal seed. It’s starting, especially with the announcement from Kamloops it’s happening all across Canada,” Webstad said.
Indigenous people will finally be able to tell awful truths and collectively heal, she added.
“I’m glad that this has happened now while as many survivors are alive as possible to tell the stories and take part because this needs to be dealt with in our generation. We cannot pass this down.”
While it’s difficult work, it is crucial, she noted.
“We cannot go under, we cannot go over and we cannot go sideways, we have to go through it. I think right now is the calm before the storm.”