Phyllis Webstad is welcomed by students and staff at Norgate Community Elementary School
Soft weeping weaves through the stillness of the gymnasium at Norgate Community Elementary School. The room is dark and calm as the school community – students, staff and parents – sits and listens to Phyllis (Jack) Webstad tell her story of residential schools.
"I cried and I cried. But it didn't matter how much I cried, they wouldn't give it back," Webstad tells the school as she describes her first day at residential school.
Webstad is from the Stswecem'c Xgat'tem First Nation (Canoe Creek Indian Band) in the Cariboo region of British Columbia. She was six-years-old when she went to residential school several hours away from her home. Prior to going away to school, her grandmother brought her into town and allowed her to pick out a new outfit for school. She chose a bright orange shirt.
"I was really excited," she told the students at Norgate Elementary.
The morning she was leaving for residential school, her grandmother patted her head and sent her off on the bus. When she arrived at the school, the nuns cut her hair and took away her new orange shirt. She loved the shirt and begged to have it returned, but despite her pleading and tears, the nuns would not give it back to her, Webstad explained.
Many of the parents and staff at Norgate Elementary listening to Webstad recount her story started to cry as she described the loneliness, neglect and lack of love she experienced at the St. Joseph Mission residential school. She was the third generation in her family to attend residential school – her mother and grandmother had both attended for more than a decade each. Webstad's son then also attended.
"My granny lost the ability to say, 'I love you'," said Webstad. "I suppose she could no longer say it because it allowed her to prepare her grandkids for the complete loss of love we would experience at residential school, and also, since she sent 10 of her own children to residential school, it protected her heart."
In 2013, Webstad created Orange Shirt Day as a way of honouring the effects of residential schools and recognizing that every child matters. Every year on September 30th people wear orange as a way of showing their support for reconciliation. The date of September 30th was selected for Orange Shirt Day because it is the time of year in which children were taken from their homes to go to residential schools for the next 300 days.
North Vancouver School District staff with Phyllis / Norgate students and staff drum with Phyllis
The North Vancouver School District takes part in Orange Shirt Day annually. This year, the school district is adorning orange on Monday, October 1st because September 30th falls on a weekend. Norgate Community Elementary School and Carson Graham Secondary School welcomed Phyllis Webstad earlier in September to speak with their entire student and staff body, and also to parents who were able to attend.
Carson Graham students welcome Phyllis
Phyllis has written a children's book about Orange Shirt Day. It is available through Medicine Wheel Education.