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Orange Shirt Story Author Wraps Up Wood Buffalo Visit

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Phyllis Webstad is pondering a question she’s never been asked before: Has she forgiven everyone from the residential school she attended? She asks me to come back to it. The author of Orange Shirt Story, which inspired the Orange Shirt Day movement across Canada was in town last week on a speaking tour thanks to the Wood Buffalo Regional Library.

Webstad, who is Northern Secwpemc (Shuswap) from the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation (Canoe Creek Indian Band) attended St. Joseph Mission Residential School in her hometown of William Lake, BC in 1973/74. She was only six when she was taken there. For the first day of school, her grandmother bought her an orange shirt, which was taken away, and she never wore it again. Orange Shirt Day is observed on September 30 annually since 2013 when she first told the story.

“We decided on September 30 because that’s the time of year when the children were taken away. An elder once told me ‘September was crying month,’ and I knew then we had chosen the right month. Our tagline ‘Every Child Matters,’ comes from the feeling I had when I was at residential school – I felt I never mattered,” explained Webstad, 52.

Residential schools were government-sponsored schools run by churches. Their goal was to assimilate Indigenous children into the Euro-Canadian culture. An estimated 150,000 children attended residential schools – 6000 of whom it is estimated died while there. Over 130 residential schools operated in Canada between 1831 and 1996.

Webstad’s grandmother’s 10 children were taken away, and in 1996 her son, 15 years old then, found out the institution he was attending under the guise of hockey school was in fact a residential school. It took four generations for her family’s children to have both parents under the same roof – a fact she realized only a few years ago.

A lesser known fact: Orange Shirt Day was Joan Sorley’s idea, who chaired the Cariboo Regional District Heritage Committee, and pitched the idea after the 2013 event. She was in Wood Buffalo travelling with Webstad.

“Chief Justice Murray Sinclair challenged all the participants that day in 2013 to keep the reconciliation process going. If I hadn’t pitched it someone else would’ve come up with it. It’s important to keep Orange Shirt Day going. We know it’s widespread – during the week leading up to September 30 over 257,000 people visited our website,” Sorley shared.

Indeed, this is why it was important for the Wood Buffalo Regional Library to invite Webstad.

“The idea was to promote awareness and educate the community of the impact residential schools had on our Indigenous people. It is important that we give the opportunity for truth telling to acknowledge the injustices and assist in the healing process,” noted Dawn Sidoroff, Manager, Marketing & Fund Development, Wood Buffalo Regional Library.

Webstad, who is married and lives in Williams Lake, BC, is now the Executive Director of the Orange Shirt Society, a non-profit organization also based in in Williams Lake. Her books, Orange Shirt Story, and Phyliss’ Orange Shirt – for younger children - are read across the nation.

“I wanted to be present. People, in particular children think this happened a long time ago. In Williams Lake, survivors are 38 years old. I want them to know I’m here, and that this will never happen again.”

Both Sorley and Webstad visited Fort Chipewyan as well. They are excited to start a national speaking tour with Canadian Geographic early next year. She is also working on two more books.

As for forgiveness, she says “forgiving is not the same as forgetting. The pain is still there. But, this is something I’ll need to ponder with my family. We don’t talk about these things. But, I’ll do so now.”


Kiran is a national award-winning communications specialist, freelance journalist, and social media consultant. She loves telling community stories, and is a strong advocate for inclusion, diversity, women’s rights, and multiculturalism. Got story ideas? Contact her via Twitter: @KiranMK0822.