The woman who inspired the creation of Orange Shirt Day was joined by members of the B.C. Legislature Thursday to raise awareness of the residential school legacy.
Orange Shirt Society president Phyllis Webstad was in the gallery for the morning session where she was introduced by Scott Fraser, the Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation and acknowledged in a speech by Cariboo Chilcotin Liberal MLA Donna Barnett.
“It was exciting to be in the legislature,” Webstad told the Tribune. “My visit there was not a political thing. When I received the invitation from the Aboriginal minister’s office I thought if people in this colonial setting are willing to have a conversation about the impacts of residential school that’s a good thing.”
Webstad shared her story publicly for the first time in May 2013 during a panel discussion on the residential school legacy that took place at a School District 27 Pro-D day event in Williams Lake.
She recalled how she was sent to the St. Joseph Mission residential school near Williams Lake in 1973 as a six year old, leaving her home at Dog Creek where she lived with her grandmother because her mom had left to work in canneries in the U.S. and Canada.
On her first day of school, Webstad was stripped of the brand new orange shirt her grandmother had bought for her.
“Nobody cared that I had feelings or that I was upset,” Webstad said at the time. “It was like I didn’t matter and I think that’s what the colour orange meant to me from then on.”
Her story touched the hearts of First Nations and non-First Nations and resulted in the first-ever Orange Shirt Day being celebrated in Williams Lake and 100 Mile House in September 2013.
Today Webstad said she is humbled and honoured that her orange shirt story is important to so many people and that it is a vehicle for change.
“My orange shirt story opens the door to discussion on a not- so- easy to talk about subject — Indian residential schools,” Webstad said. “Seeing the children in their orange shirts and learning about the true history of Canada’s First People gives me hope that the lives of my grandsons will be different and better than what I have experienced in my life.”
Government members joined Webstad on the steps of the B.C. Parliament Building to highlight the campaign and its message th “every child matters.”
Webstad people from different political parties stood together wearing orange shirts.
“They put aside everything else to be there for one reason — to honour residential school survivors.”
Since the campaign began in 2013, Orange Shirt Day events happen throughout B.C. and Canada to raise awareness of the treatment of children at residential schools.
This year Webstad won’t be in Williams Lake or 100 Mile House for Orange Shirt Day celebrations scheduled to take place on Friday, Sept. 29.
“I will be in Victoria from Sept. 27 until Sept. 30 because I am going to be visiting various schools and a college to talk about Orange Shirt Day,” she said. “I am also taking part in a public ceremony at Victoria’s city hall.”
As for the colour orange, Webstad said that it is still not a favourite, but she has learned to embrace it in a positive way to remind herself that she does matter.