Photo by © John Dell

By Allie Murray

In 1973, six-year-old Phyllis Webstad left her home on the Dog Creek reserve in B.C. and was enrolled in St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School. Before she left, her grandmother, who she affectionately calls granny, bought her a brand new orange shirt. On her first day at school, she was stripped of her clothes and all her belongings, never to wear her orange shirt again.

From what she experienced at St. Joseph’s and the longing for what was taken from her, Phyllis started Orange Shirt Day, an initiative observed annually on September 30, to create conversation about residential schools, to honour survivors and their families and remember those who didn’t make it.

“I am humbled and honoured that my story of my orange shirt was chosen to be a vehicle for change in Canada,” Phyllis explained. “It’s amazing how the day has gained momentum and continues to grow. I’m happy that so many people are beginning to understand and learn about residential schools and their effects; I’m happy that survivors and families can talk and even heal together. I’m thankful to everyone for participating and learning about what happened to us.”

Earlier this year, countless unmarked graves were found at residential schools across the country, which has prompted Canadians to learn more about the true story behind these schools and take action alongside survivors.

For Phyllis, this is a story she knows all too well.

“The unmarked graves are being confirmed, we have always known about the children buried at residential school sites,” she said. “I prefer to use confirmed and not discovered.”

Phyllis’ story isn’t independent to her—not only did thousands of Indigenous people attend these schools across Canada, but Phyllis is one of 14 in her own family who attended residential schools.

“My grandmother was the first generation in our family to attend St. Joseph’s. All of her 10 children, including my mother, attended. My son was at the last operating residential school in Canada when it closed in 1996,” she explained.

Explaining what her own experience was like, Phyllis said, “My experience was lonely, a lot of crying, I wasn’t sure what was happening or why. I was confused as to why we were there and why granny wasn’t coming to get me if she knew I was there.

I learned to disassociate, to leave my physical body and go home. I became very good at it. Even today I can do this, it’s scary when I come back to my body I need to confirm to myself where I am and what I’m doing.”

Sharing her story has been a large part of Phyllis’ healing journey. She has released three books, one of which was released earlier this month, that explain her experiences in residential schools, all centred around the thing that started it all: her orange shirt.

“Writing the books has brought me to places I would never have gone to and I’ve met people I would not have otherwise met,” she said. “Travelling and meeting people and hearing their stories has helped me to understand the impact residential schools have had across Canada and beyond. Knowing my story and the story of my family is not unique has helped me to not be so hard on myself and to love myself and my family more.”

Similarly, Phyllis teamed up with Canadian Geographic and filmmaker Sean Stiller to bring her story to the big screen. The 90-minute documentary, called “Returning Home”, will tell the story about the parallels of the struggles of Indigenous peoples with residential schools and the salmon spawn on the Fraser River, “Canadians need to learn the stories and the truth from survivors and their families and the impact it’s had on generations.”

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