Phyllis Webstad started the Orange Shirt Day on Sept. 30. Photo courtesy of Orange Shirt Day - Every Child Matters Facebook page

Three generations of trauma: Phyllis Webstad shares experience of residential schooling

The creator of Orange Shirt Day is in the Comox Valley, speaking about the trauma of residential schools

When Phyllis Webstad was six-years-old, she was put in a residential school. Though it was only a year in the life of a small child, it is something that impacts her to this day, 45 years later.

Webstad is the creator of Orange Shirt Day, an annual nationwide movement on Sept. 30 to raise awareness and continue the discussion of the impacts of residential schools.

This week, Webstad will be going to Comox Valley schools to tell her story. This is one of the final stops on Webstad’s book tour, promoting her children’s book, The Orange Shirt Story.

In July of 1973, Webstad turned six, the age First Nations children were typically sent to residential schools. 

Before the beginning of school, Webstad’s grandmother brought her into town and they chose something for her to wear on her first day of school: a shiny orange shirt.

“I don’t remember my pants or shoes, but I remember my shirt because it was bright and exciting,” said Webstad.

But once Webstad and her cousin arrived at the St. Joseph Mission residential school near Williams Lake, her and the other children’s clothes were taken, including the shiny orange shirt.

“As a six-year-old memory, I never remember wearing my shirt again or getting it back.”

Webstad was soon separated from her cousin and was put in a dormitory with strangers. She remembers her hair being cut and water coming out of the walls – something that scared her because she had never lived with plumbing or running water before.

“It was one terrifying event after another,” she said.

Webstad is a third generation residential school survivor as both her grandmother and mother attended as well. While Webstad’s experiences were not as bad as her mother and grandmother, the trauma is something that has followed her for her whole life.

“I’ve been going to a lot of schools and I’m somewhat of a disappointment to the children, and it’s a good thing because I don’t have the harsh stories that they’re learning about in schools… people dying, people being beat up and people being abused, and I don’t have any of those stories,” she said.

“But I’d say that residential school was pretty successful in what its original intent was: to kill the Indian in the child.”

Webstad grew up not knowing her culture, her language or her history. It wasn’t talked about in her school, in her community or even her home. Webstad grew up without a mother because her mother was ordered to abandon her and leave the reserve in 1967. And as a child, Webstad didn’t understand why.

“I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know what it was called and I didn’t know what to do about it,” she said. “But I don’t want my child or any First Nations child to be that lost.”

In this day of reconciliation, it is important to talk about the trauma of the past and learn from it today, said Webstad.

“I envision a different world for my grandchildren and any children from anything that me or the generations before me ever grew up in.”

Webstad’s book is currently available for purchase at I-Hos Gallery.

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