Looking out into a park filled with students there to celebrate Orange Shirt Day, Phyllis Webstad asked if anyone was six years old.
Webstad’s story of having her brand new shirt taken away on her first day of residential school is the inspiration for Orange Shirt Day which was celebrated in Williams Lake on Monday, Sept. 30 at Boitanio Park with local students.
“That’s how old I was when I got my orange shirt taken away. I had just turned six in July when I went to residential school,” Webstad said.
Reading from her new rhyming book Phyllis’s Orange Shirt for ages four to six, which excludes the nuns and crying that is in her original book, she said: “The place was so cold, unfriendly and strange. Her bright orange shirt was taken away and she worried how long she would stay.”
“We wear our orange shirts to remember that every child matters and not just in September.”
A third-generation residential school survivor, Webstad said her grandmother attended residential school for 10 years as did her 10 children, including Webstad’s mom who also attended for 10 years.
“I attended for one year in 1973 and 1974. St. Joseph Indian Residential School is about 15 to 20 minutes that way,” Webstad said, pointing south from the stage.
Students from Dog Creek elementary secondary school under the direction of Louise Harry, also a residential school survivor, lined the stage holding large construction paper feathers with one word on each of them.
The words — love, respect, courage, truth, wisdom, culture, humility, power, respect, bravery, love, truth, language — represented values the children felt were important, Harry said.
Teenager Saidra Archie said during the 165 years that residential schools were open students were stripped of their language, culture and family.
“Not only did residential schools traumatize children they also impacted First Nations families and communities in a legacy that we are still trying to overcome,” Archie said.
The students from Dog Creek presented Webstad with a gathering blanket they made for her.
Esket Chief Fred Robbins led a truth and reconciliation conference in Williams Lake that resulted in Webstad telling her story for the first time.
“This month is the month of tears for a lot of First Nations people,” Robbins said. “The parents and grandparents were crying in their homes and children were crying in residential schools because they were separated for 10 months.”
Thanking the First Nations RCMP members for being part of the celebration, Robbins said it was ‘vital’ they participate because historically it was police officers who were given the task of removing First Nations children from their homes.
He asked all the residential school survivors in the crowd to stand so they could be recognized.
“To this day I recognize my wife for making me the man I am today. Without her by my side I probably would have been a bad father. I would have followed along the same legacy of my father and grandfather had done before me,” Robbins said.
“We cannot forget that these were children who were being removed from their homes. When they were removed they were told they could not speak their language and had to speak English.”
Proven rights and title, he added, are allowing First Nations to breathe the language and culture back into their communities.
He then invited students from Marie Sharpe and Esket elementary schools to join him singing an honour song.
Williams Lake Indian Band Chief Willie Sellars said Webstad’s orange shirt story is an important part of the reconciliation and healing process.
“We will be ever grateful for Phyllis having the courage to step and tell her story,” Sellars said. “It has kick started this movement to make change.”
Thanking Webstad for her bravery Cariboo Chilcotin MLA Donna Barnett said all children must never be afraid to tell someone if somebody is bullying them or not treating them with respect.
“Every child deserves respect and every child matters. You matter more than you think. There are days when you probably think nobody cares, but never think that. There is always your parents, your grandparents, your teachers, your friends — somebody always cares.”
Tim Joyce, Royal Canadian Geographical Society president and senior producer joined the celebration in Williams Lake.
“I fell truly honoured to be here with you to honour survivors of residential school,” Joyce said. “Each year Sept. 30 opens the door to national conversation on residential schools and our still-largely unknown collective history in this country.”
Joyce announced the Paths to Reconciliation initiative, a partnership with the Orange Shirt Society that will share information about the residential school system.
The initiative will encompass a cross-Canada tour to 24 different schools with Webstad sharing her story along with the Canadian Geographic education team between November 2019 to March 2020.