People all across Canada will be wearing Orange Shirts this Wednesday, in commemoration of the former students subjected to Canada’s residential school system.
The event date was chosen to correlate with the time of year when children were taken from their homes and put into residential schools. The event was conceptualized by Phyllis Webstad from Dog Creek, B.C. who — as a child – had her new orange shirt taken from her on her first day of school at the St. Joseph’s Mission school in 1973.
“I had just turned 6 years old. We never had very much money and there was no welfare, but somehow my granny managed to buy me a new outfit to go to the Mission School, a shiny orange shirt. It had eyelets and lace, and I felt so pretty in that shirt and excited. When I got to the Mission they stripped me, and took away my clothes including the orange shirt. I never saw it again except on other kids,” said Webstad, published by Tara-Lee Gardner Designs. “Since then 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.”
Webstad along with 150,000 other First Nations children across Canada were forced to attend residential school. She attended St. Joseph’s Mission in Williams Lake, B.C. and shared her story at the St. Joseph’s Mission Reunion in 2013. Since, her story went global it became part of a nationwide effort, with volunteers beading orange t-shirt earrings, printing “every child matters” onto orange t-shirts and wearing orange bandanas every September 30th to support.
Webstad said she is “humbled and honoured” by the response to Orange Shirt Day, but there were tough moments for her.
“I ended up in the hospital with a major surgery, my body couldn’t take it anymore,” she told Muskrat Magazine, saying she quietly suffered with her memories, isolating herself.
However now Webstad shared she’s seeing a registered residential school therapist to help deal with the emotions of her residential school experience.
Orange Shirt Day is to honour those lost and those that survived residential school systems, and Webstad continues her work with hopes that she may soon turn the event into a national event that celebrates culture and art as well.