Phyllis Webstad was born in 1967 on the land of the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation Dog Creek Indian Band. As a small child, she lived with her grandmother southwest of Williams Lake, BC on the east side of the Fraser River.

When Phyllis turned six, she was excited to learn that she would be going to school. But Phyllis did not understand what “going to school” meant for a small First Nations child in 1973.

From 1876 to 1996 for 150,000 First Nations, Metis and Inuit children under the age of 16 living on reserves in Canada, “going to school” meant being forcibly removed from their families and from everything they knew as home living for the school year in one of 139 residential schools scattered across Canada in every province and territory of the country.

School for these children meant being forbidden to practice the traditions of their people or to speak their native language. It meant being forced into an alien, harsh and often violently abusive world. These children had to learn a foreign “civilized” language and adopt the practices of an unfamiliar culture and the “enlightened” beliefs of a strange religious system. 4,000 of these children never survived. For them “going to school” was a death sentence. For most of the survivors it was a sentence to years of suffering from the wounds inflicted by this inhumane practice.

Before Phyllis was removed from her home to go school her Granny took her shopping in Williams Lake. They went to Robinson’s store where Phyllis picked out a special shiny orange shirt to wear on her first day of school. It had small pearl buttons down the front. Phyllis could not wait to wear her new shirt and was looking forward to joining her cousins at school.

But, when Phyllis arrived at the St. Joseph’s Residential School two hours from her home, life was not as she had expected it was going to be. There were no cousins to greet her; children were rigidly segregated by age and as her cousins were older, Phyllis almost never saw them. And, upon arrival, Phyllis was stripped and all her clothes taken from her including her cherished new orange shirt. She never saw that orange shirt again.

But the biggest surprise at St. Joseph’s was the discovery that Phyllis would not be going home at night. She would not get to sleep in her own little bed. And for one hundred sleeps, she would not get to visit her Granny.

Remembering her orange shirt, Phyllis says,

The color orange has always reminded me how my feelings didn’t matter, how no one cared and how I felt like I was worth nothing. All of us little children were crying and no one cared.

In 2013 Phyllis began encouraging Canadians on September 30 each year to wear an orange shirt bearing the words:

This simple gesture is an act of solidarity with displaced children. It seeks to acknowledge the violence and pain that government and church officials in Canada inflicted upon innocent children, their families and communities for over a century.

Eddy Charlie, of the Cowichan Nation, is a survivor of the Residential School located on Kuper (now Penelakut) Island. Along with his friend Kristin Spray, he organizes Orange Shirt Day observances in Victoria, BC. Eddy was taken from his home when he was just four-years-old. He tells a painful story of loss, and suffering in the face of repeated and vicious abuse. But, like Phyllis, Eddy also tells a story of enormous courage as he walks the journey towards healing and reconciliation.

Phyllis and Eddy do not demand a lot. They hope only that their stories might be heard.

The role for we who are settler peoples is to do the one thing we refused to do when we first came to this land. Our task in the process of reconciliation is to listen. The journey to reconciliation lies along the path of truth-telling. We need to see without judgment the legacy of suffering spawned by our ancestors’ violence against the beautiful people who inhabited this land when our forebearers first arrived. We need to hear with compassion the ravages wrought in the lives of Residential School survivors by policies know now were so profoundly misguided.

Tragically, when the first settlers arrived in the land of the First Nations, Metis and Inuit people, the newcomers were unable to perceive the oneness of all people the Creator had ordained.

We in the church bear a particular responsibility for the inability of European settlers to live respectfully among those whom they displaced. Most of the invaders of this land had been taught in our churches to see, non-white Indigenous people as less worthy of respect than those who spoke like and lived like the invader peoples who came from afar.

To reconcile is to bring back together that which appears to have been separated. The truth that Jesus came to reveal is that, in reality, we are not separate. All peoples are one, regardless of any apparent surface differences. The path to reconciliation lies along the way of recovering our awareness of the fundamental unity of all human beings. We are blessed to have guides like Phyllis Webstad and Eddy Charlie to help us along the way. May we heed their voices; follow their wisdom and live always as if “Every child matters”.

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donations to support Victoria’s Orange Shirt Day observances can be made here: https://ca.gofundme.com/orangeshirtday

Orange Shirt Day t-shirts may be ordered year-round at: victoriaorangeshirtday@gmail.com