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Phyllis Webstad and the Orange Shirt

At the age of six, Phyllis Webstad was ready to go to school. Growing up on the Dog Creek reserve in the Cariboo Region of the central interior of British Columbia, she was registered for classes at the St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School (the Mission) near Williams Lake. Filled with anticipation before school began, she went into town with her grandmother to buy a new set of clothes. Encouraged by her granny to choose something that she liked, Phyllis picked out an orange shirt. It was bright and shiny, and featured a string lace-up in the front. Her memories of it are still vivid, because it embodied for her the excitement she felt at the prospect of going off to school. On the first day of school in September, she proudly donned her shirt and headed to the Mission. She never wore it again.

The school took away the clothes the children were wearing and replaced them with communal clothing, often ill-fitting and unflattering. Phyllis lost her beloved shirt, never to see it again. She felt devastated, and simply couldn’t understand why something that belonged to her could be taken away and not returned to her. Yet what she didn’t realize at the time was that the school would also take away much more: her sense of self-worth, her dignity, and the loving embrace of her family. At the school, no one made an effort to nurture the children or create an environment that would remind them of the homes they had left, where they had been raised by family, friends, and a community that made them feel that they mattered. Above all, she felt the loss of those closest to her. Her mother and grandmother were suddenly absent from her life; she couldn’t even be with her older cousin, who also attended the Mission, because the school separated children by age. Phyllis endured a period of emotional deprivation and psychological abuse, the effects of which remained with her into adulthood.

What also remained was the memory of the orange shirt. In a cruel twist, the colour orange came to remind her of not only the shirt that had been taken from her, but also the feelings of worthlessness that she experienced: the sense that no one cared for her and that her feelings didn’t matter. She didn’t fully understand the origin of those feelings, which affected the way she lived and engaged with others for decades. At the age of 27, however, she began to develop a deeper understanding. She enrolled in a treatment program and embarked on a journey to healing that has continued ever since.

A major milestone on that journey occurred when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission came to British Columbia and Phyllis was asked to speak about her Indian Residential School experience. Unsure of what to say, she chose to tell the story of her shirt, and she decided to wear an orange sweater while telling it. For her, its loss had come to symbolize the loss of everything that had sustained her as a child. And in working through her story over time, she began to articulate a thought that crystallized all her feelings about Residential Schools and her childhood experience: Every Child Matters.

That thought grew stronger, and as Phyllis began to tell her story to more and more people—at first locally, and gradually across the country—the story of the orange shirt resonated. It became a symbol of the resilience of Residential School Survivors in overcoming trauma, neglect, and abuse. The first Orange Shirt Day was held on September 30, 2013 in Williams Lake, and it has since grown into a national event. Children and families throughout Canada now honour the stories and experiences of Survivors by wearing orange each year, at the end of September. What had begun as a personal story became a widely shared commemoration, supported by the Orange Shirt Society, a non-profit organization based in Williams Lake. The Society is dedicated to:

  • supporting Indian Residential School reconciliation
  • creating awareness of the individual, family, and community inter-generational impacts of Indian Residential Schools
  • promoting the concept of Every Child Matters.

Phyllis never expected that her story would grow to attain such prominence, but it has now embedded itself in the national consciousness. That was confirmed in June of this year, when the federal government passed legislation establishing September 30 as a statutory federal holiday, National Day for Truth and Reconciliation—in fulfillment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action #80. Like others, BMO observes this holiday with the recognition that we still have much work to do on the path towards reconciliation.

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