In 1973, six year old Phyllis Webstad arrived at St. Joseph Mission Residential School just outside of Williams Lake, B.C. She was wearing a brand new orange shirt gifted to her from her grandmother. The Oblates quickly stripped her of her new shirt and replaced it with the school’s institutional uniform. She never saw her orange shirt again.
It wasn’t uncommon for Indigenous children in residential schools to have their personal belongings confiscated from them. Nor was it uncommon for them to be physically, psychologically or sexually abused. Many children suffered from malnourishment, overcrowding, poor sanitation and lack of medical care. It is estimated that 150,000 First Nation, Inuit and Métis children attended residential schools from the 1880s until the last one closed in 1996. While the number of deaths is unknown, estimates range from 3,200 to upwards of 6,000. We may never know how many children died in residential schools, due in part to the practice of burying children in unmarked graves.
Phyllis says that even today the feeling of worthlessness and insignificance still lingers from her time in residential school. She decided to start sharing her story so that others might benefit and understand, and hopefully inspire others to share their story. In 2013, Phyllis started Orange Shirt Day. The date of Orange Shirt Day, Sept. 30, was chosen because it’s the time of year when buses would enter communities to “collect” the children and bring them to residential schools. Phyllis also just published a children’s book about her story entitled The Orange Shirt Story.
Now, dozens of Orange Shirt Day events take place across Canada on September 30th. This Sunday, September 30th, Victoria will be holding its annual “Orange Shirt Day: Every Child Matters” in Centennial Square, organized by locals Eddy Charlie, Kristin Spray and Victoria Lea Pruden.
Last fall, Eddy Charlie, a survivor of Kuper Island Residential School, inspired me to bring Orange Shirt Day to the House of Commons. I introduced a private member’s bill to have Orange Shirt Day nationally recognized, to remember and honour those who were forced to attend residential schools across Canada. My bill is part of an ongoing effort to address the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Actions.
I encourage you to learn more about the legacy of residential schools and to read the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action. The impacts of residential schools go far beyond the children who personally experienced the schools. Language and culture have been lost and families have suffered intergenerational trauma. Reconciliation is a long process.
I hope you will join me at noon in Centennial Square this Sept. 30. And if you cannot join me, I hope you will wear orange to show your support.
Murray Rankin serves as Member of Parliament for Victoria.