Phyllis Webstad was six-years-old in 1973, living with her grandmother on the Dog Creek reserve near Williams Lake.
They were poor, but her grandmother scraped together enough money to buy her a new outfit for her first day at her new school, at a residential school in Mission.
“I remember going to Robinson’s store and picking out a shiny orange shirt,” she recalls. “It had string laced up in front, and was so bright and exciting — just like I felt to be going to school!”
Of course, the residential schools were anything but exciting or bright for the Indigenous people of Canada, forced into this system of what turned out to be attempted cultural genocide.
“When I got to the Mission [school], they stripped me, and took away my clothes, including the orange shirt,” she recounts. “I never wore it again. I didn’t understand why they wouldn’t give it back to me. It was mine. The colour orange has always reminded me of how my feelings didn’t matter, how no one cared and how I felt like I was worth nothing. All of us little children were crying and no one cared.”
Webstad’s story is the spark for Orange Shirt Day, which was Sept. 30 in Canada, a day to educate and recognize the harm of the residential school system.
Students across Chilliwack, across B.C. and beyond of course, wore orange shirts. They were students from Kindergarten to high school, the former who couldn’t possibly understand the significance, the latter who could and should.
For those of us born with privilege, it’s utterly pretentious to presume we can wear an orange shirt or pin an orange ribbon and even with the deepest empathy pretend to understand what it was like to have your culture taken from you, to be torn from your family and be forced to be something else. All while being treated like a second-class citizen, at best.
I attended Vedder elementary school on Monday but only made it for the tail end of the assembly. As any teacher or parent knows, an assembly with an entire school requires an attention to misbehaviour of mind-boggling patience. But even as the simple practicalities of the walk were explained to the children, there was an element of emotion in the air. A sense of importance to this walk, beyond other events schools hold.
Aboriginal educational assistant Charmaine Surman organized the event, a large task that involved Vedder, next-door G.W. Graham middle-secondary school, the Tzeachten First Nation and others. City of Chilliwack Couns. Jason Lum and Bud Mercer walked, too.
And while the extremely cute Kindergarteners who led the way knew not why they were walking, the Grade 1s and 2s and 3s surely knew a little, and the 4s and 5s likely were able to comprehend the seriousness.
It’s hard for elementary school kids to really engage in why these events happen.
The middle and high-school kids certainly could understand, but as any of us who were that age know, i.e. all of us, fitting in and being cool often supersede history lessons.
But after they all walked, they will remember that they did this. They may be told to remember, but they will remember. And for those who are not Indigenous, I hope they will engage with an Indigenous neighbour or peer to ask if Orange Shirt Day was important to them. If remembering the legacy of residential schools is important, are we even close to getting reconciliation right?
Because we have no choice. We have to do it. We have to recognize what was done in the past, and what should never be done again.
All the Phyllis Webstads out there deserve nothing less.