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Orange Shirt Society founder hopeful for future of Indigenous families

B.C.’s Phyllis Webstad will be at Niagara Falls for National Day for Truth and Reconciliation

Orange Shirt Day founder and ambassador Phyllis Webstad remains humbled and honoured her story and her family’s story continue to be the vehicle for change across Canada.

In 2013 she first shared her residential school experience during a panel discussion at a professional development day hosted by School District 27 in Williams Lake, recalling as a six-year-old child how her new orange shirt her grandmother bought for her for her first day of school was taken away by staff of St. Joseph Mission Residential School.

“I didn’t understand why they wouldn’t give it back to me, it was mine. The colour orange has always reminded me of that and how my feelings didn’t matter, how no one cared and how I felt like I was worth nothing. All of us little children were crying and no one cared.”

This year, 2022, is actually the 10th Orange Shirt Day, she said.

“When it first started it was originally for the Cariboo Chilcotin area in Williams Lake to keep the conversation happening once a year. It hit Facebook and it went viral. Now we are having this year the second National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.”

It’s amazing how it has grown, she added.

“From the very first year I have always said this whole movement as I’ve heard it called is divinely guided, that something else is at play. The ancestors, the children, are the ones to credit for everything that is happening. For whatever reason my story was chosen and I just continue to do my best to be there, to speak and do what I have to do.”

Webstad and a delegation will be in Niagara Falls on National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, Sept. 30 to see the falls turn orange in recognition of Truth and Reconciliation.

“From 8 until 11 p.m. for 15 minutes on the hour the falls will be orange. One minute equals 10,000 children and the 15 minutes equals 150,00 children that were taken from their homes and their families across Canada,” Webstad told Black Press Media.

This year Webstad is also asking survivors and their families, and people who know survivors, to go out on Mother Earth on Sept. 30 and say the names of survivors out loud.

“That way all 150,000 names are being verbalized across Canada on that one day.”

She is hoping this will happen every year as it was something she thought about a few years ago but had not done anything about it yet.

If people have to stand on a balcony because that’s there only choice, then that’s OK too, but her preference is to have people standing on the ground.

In her own family there are 14 survivors so they will go outside and say the names of those who are still alive as well as the family members who have died.

“It’s a way to honour all survivors.”

Webstad said Sept. 30 in Niagara Falls will begin with a sunrise ceremony at 7:13 a.m. followed by another ceremony from 10 a.m. to noon.

While in Ontario Webstad will be speaking at Niagara College, Brock University, Rotary, and at a matinee and evening event with the local Catholic District School Board.

When she speaks in front of groups, Webstad often says “life can be understood backward but must be lived forward.”

During one of her presentations, she was showing a photograph of her family on the screen and she realized something.

“Looking at my son, my five grandchildren, his wife, my mom, I realized for the first time in four generations children in my family are living under the same roof as their mother and their father.”

Webstad, her mom, her grandmother and her son did not have that.

“That may not seem like much to some people but it is huge. The family unit is back together again after four generations and what a change that is going to make in my grandchildren.”

Quoting Murray Sinclair, she added “they will grow up to be who they were meant to be.”

“I can witness that already in my grandchildren. One of them is six years old and what a character. Nothing gets past him. He speaks up and says what he feels. Traits that survivors did not get to have. When he’s sad, lonely, tired or angry, his parents tend to him and help him through it.”

Looking to the future she’s excited to witness the progress and change of her grandchildren because they are being raised by their parents under the same roof.

Read More: Williams Lake First Nation marks Truth and Reconciliation Day with prayers, drumming

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Monica Lamb-Yorski

About the Author: Monica Lamb-Yorski

A B.C. gal, I was born in Alert Bay, raised in Nelson, graduated from the University of Winnipeg, and wrote my first-ever article for the Prince Rupert Daily News.
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