Orange Shirt Day founder ‘so honoured to be honoured’ with degree from SFU

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Orange Shirt Day founder honoured with SFU degree
The founder of Orange Shirt Day has been honoured with a degree from Simon Fraser University. Phyllis Webstad received an honorary doctor of law from SFU and joined hundreds of students on stage during a convocation. Kylie Stanton reports – Oct 6, 2023

Warning: This story deals with disturbing subject matter that may upset some readers. Discretion is advised.

It was one of few instances where Phyllis Webstad could be seen on stage wearing something other than her signature colour.

Dressed in a red and blue gown and sash, the Orange Shirt Day founder beamed as she received an honourary doctorate of law before 1,700 graduates of Simon Fraser University on Friday.

As she reached up to adjust her bonnet — just for a moment — an orange t-shirt peaked through.

“All of you here have come from a history that was already written, however, it is up to you now to rewrite the future,” she said, addressing the crowd. “You all arrived here individually with different passions and inspirations, but it is now time to walk together with a collective sense of purpose.”

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Click to play video: 'Residential school survivors find healing one kilometre at a time'
Residential school survivors find healing one kilometre at a time

It was a powerful moment for the residential school survivor and five-time book author, who catalyzed a national movement recognizing the harm done in residential schools and a commitment to building a future where every child matters. Orange Shirt Day, observed annually on Sept. 30, shares its day of remembrance with National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

Webstad of the Stswecem’c Xget’tem First Nation was just six-years-old when she was sent to St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School in 1973. On her first day, she was stripped of the shiny, laced orange shirt her grandmother had just bought for her.

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She never got it back.

“That cruel action resulted in my feeling unimportant, as if I did not matter,” the survivor, now 56, told SFU graduates and faculty members. “The colour orange has since become a symbol of the effects of residential schools and the physical symbol for Every Child Matters.”

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Webstad said her grandmother and mother both attended residential school, and her son attended that last one still operating in Canada — Gordon Reserve Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, which closed in 1996.

“My son and his wife are doing something that has not been done in five generations in our family — raising their own children. They are raising their five grandchildren under one roof,” she said proudly. “For some, this is routine and expected, but for my family and my Indigenous kin, it is remarkable.”

Click to play video: 'B.C. marks Truth and Reconciliation Day'
B.C. marks Truth and Reconciliation Day

For more than 100 years, Canada’s residential school system deliberately tore Indigenous families apart, seeking to erase Indigenous identities, languages, beliefs and practices. More than 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children attended the institutions of assimilation. Countless among them suffering unspeakable mental, physical and sexual abuse.

An unknown number — many thousands — died under the care of priests and nuns.

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“The Indian residential school system is not only Indigenous history, it is Canadian history,” Webstad said. “When the effects of colonialism are viewed through the lens of being Indigenous history, this further ostracizes the experience that Indigenous people have felt and continue to feel here in Canada.”

Click to play video: 'National Day for Truth and Reconciliation often involves self-care for Indigenous people'
National Day for Truth and Reconciliation often involves self-care for Indigenous people

Webstad was introduced on stage Friday by the Nisga’a Nation’s Jeannie Morgan, an assistant professor of Indigenous Studies.

Morgan credited her for “inadvertently starting a global wave of awareness,” and to contributing to critical dialogue in classrooms, businesses and communities about the intergenerational trauma and lasting impacts of Canada’s colonial policies, as well as the path forward for reconciliation.

For that reason, she said Webstad was awarded her honourary doctorate.

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Sḵwx̱wú7mesh elder shares healing from residential school in new memoir

Speaking with Global News after the ceremony, Webstad described the experience as “surreal.”

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“It’s just amazing. I need to just let it sink in a little bit,” she said, touching her heart. “I’m just so honoured to be honoured for the work that I do to bring education and awareness across Canada about residential school and its impacts.”

Webstad said the reach and impact of Orange Shirt Day has exceeded her wildest dreams, now taking on a “life of its own.”

This year was the 10th day that Orange Shirt Day was celebrated in Canada.

Asked what’s next for her, the honourary doctor said she’d like to travel internationally to speak about the impacts of residential school. But that’s after she sits down with her beloved family for a celebratory meal, she added.

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