‘I’m still not comfortable with it’: Orange Shirt Day founder reflects on decade of reconciliation work

Two years ago, Phyllis Webstad felt the weight of her own story and wondered if it was time to write an ending.

In May 2021, Webstad put the finishing touches on “Stories Beyond the Orange Shirt,” a collection of six generations of her family’s stories before, during and after boarding school.

It’s a painful job.

“When I finished it, I was half an hour away from going to the hospital. Because I was so affected. My heart wouldn’t stop beating.”

To calm himself down, Weberstad went for a long walk as usual. It was raining at Williams Lake and when she got home she was drenched but feeling better.

Then, three days later, The remains of 215 children were found At the former Kamloops Indian boarding school. She decided that essential work at Webstad must continue.

For ten years, Webstad was Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation’s Northern Secwpemc and she traveled the country talking about her years at boarding school. Her story is well told.

In 1973, when Webstad was six, she was sent to St. Joseph’s Mission boarding school outside Williams Lake. On her first day, Webstad wore an orange shirt, a gift from her grandmother to school staff.

When Weberstad remembered the orange shirt in April 2013, she had been flirting with the idea of ​​giving a speech at St. Joseph’s Church.The story went viral, and over the next decade she promoted the orange shirt across Canada as a symbol of reconciliation, inspiring orange shirt day Or National Truth and Reconciliation Day, commemorated every September 30th and coined the slogan “Every Child Matters.”

During that time, Webstad felt a purpose in her work.

“I always say it’s been divinely guided from the beginning, the ancestors and the children are behind it. For whatever reason, my story was chosen to start the conversation.”

But as her responsibilities increased, so did her personal costs.

The Orange Shirt Society was originally started independently by Webstad and currently has only 7 employees. She spends most of the year at speaking engagements and is currently putting the finishing touches on her fifth book, Every Child Matters, due out in August.

The association is also in its second year organizing the Orange Jersey Project, which teaches boarding school history through sports programming. In 2022, Webstad said the association provided 250 orange jerseys to teams. This year it will be 750.

Society must now also police the use of the phrase “every child matters,” Weberstad said. February 2022 is Use without consent Organizer of the Freedom Convoy, which in turn was condemned by Webstad and the Northern Secwépemc te Qelmucw Chiefs.

Now, Weberstad, 55, says she dreams of one day being free from her own story. She wants to get her job done and live a life that doesn’t require her to be a public figure.

“I’ve been uncomfortable with it since 2013, and I’m still uncomfortable with it.”

But she is trying. Webstad has begun working with the International Bureau of Indigenous Speakers to help cut material from her speeches. She’s also made videos that she hopes will tell her story without the constant travel and hardships of talking face-to-face.

She also found hope at home.

In just three years, the graduating class of Williams Lake School District 27 will be the first class to receive a 13-year public education that includes boarding school history.

Webstad’s son attended one of the last boarding schools before it finally closed in 1996, and he has five children. Watching her grandchildren grow up with their parents and free themselves from the burden of more than a century of cultural genocide has been beautiful to witness and fills her with optimism for the future, she said.

“I have a seven-year-old grandson, and some of our conversations and some of the things he came up with were like, oh my god, this is what humans could be if they weren’t oppressed and suppressed.”

@tyler_harper | [email protected]

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