The B.C. founder of a national day to remember the dark legacy of Canada’s residential schools wants people to know that while the institutions are gone, they’re still recent history.
“Here in Williams Lake, the St. Joseph Indian Residential School closed in 1981,” said Phyllis Webstad, founder and executive director of the Orange Shirt Society.
Between 1836 and 1996, Canada operated 139 residential schools in Canada where Indigenous children were taken from their families, forbidden from speaking their languages and in many cases subjected to physical or sexual abuses.
An estimated 6,000 children died in the institutions.
In 2015, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission deemed the system nothing short of “cultural genocide.”
“This is Canadian history. And all Canadians need to learn and to understand what happened to us at the residential schools, and the impact on generations — not only my family, but families across Canada,” Webstad said.
Webstad founded Orange Shirt Day, which takes place every Sept. 30, in 2013 after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission came to Williams Lake.
Webstad is a third-generation residential school survivor, and the name of the day was drawn from her own experience with the school system.
As a 10-year-old child heading to her first day at St. Joseph’s Mission residential school, she wore a shiny new orange shirt given to her by her grandmother. When she arrived, school staff took away all of her clothes, including the shirt. It was never returned.
Since Webstad founded the event, it’s grown to become an event commemorated across Canada.
This year, the federal Liberal government marked the day by reintroducing legislation that would make Sept. 30 a statutory holiday dedicated to Indigenous reconciliation.
Creating the holiday was one of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 recommendations.
For Webstad, the most important thing is that Canadians have open discussions about the history.
“Orange shirt day is a conversation starter on all aspects of the Indian Residential Schools across Canada — it’s a day to remember survivors and their families and those children that never made it home,” she said.
“In as little as 50, 60 years there will be no survivors left in Canada … then the orange shirt story will be a way to remember us when we’re no longer here.”