September 30th is Orange Shirt Day. Orange Shirt Day is a legacy of the St. Joseph Mission (SJM) residential school commemoration event held in Williams Lake, BC, Canada, in the spring of 2013. It grew out of Phyllis’ story of having her shiny new orange shirt taken away from her on her first day of school at the Mission. Orange Shirt Day has become an opportunity to keep the discussion alive about residential schools and to reinforce that every child matters. September 30th was chosen because it is the time of year in which children were taken from their homes to residential schools. Recognizing this day provides an opportunity to set the stage for anti-racism and anti-bullying policies for the coming school year.
Orange Shirt Day is also an opportunity for First Nations, local governments, schools and communities to come together in the spirit of reconciliation and hope for generations of children to come. Last year, United Way of the Lower Mainland adopted a Statement of Reconciliation. The Statement recognizes the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. United Way’s commitment to Reconciliation includes providing cultural awareness training and education to staff as well as workinig in partnership with Aboriginal peoples in BC to build stronger relationships.
At present, United Way invests nearly $2 million in Aboriginal initiatives. The early childhood program Success By 6 BC invests another $1 million. Better at Home, a seniors program funded by the provincial government and managed by United Way, has four Aboriginal-focused programs located on reserve that serve Aboriginal communities: Squamish Nation–Tsleil-Waututh Nation Better at Home; Stó:lō Territory Better at Home; Gitxsan Better at Home; and Cowichan Tribes Better at Home. United Way is helping build a strong community for all.
Phyllis (Jack) Webstad’s story in her own words… I went to the Mission for one school year in 1973/1974. I had just turned 6 years old. I lived with my grandmother on the Dog Creek reserve. We never had very much money, and there was no welfare, but somehow my granny managed to buy me a new outfit to go to the Mission school. I remember going to Robinson’s store and picking out a shiny orange shirt. It had string laced up in front, and was so bright and exciting – just like I felt to be going to school! When I got to the Mission, they stripped me, and took away my clothes, including the orange shirt! I never saw it again. I didn’t understand why they wouldn’t give it back to me, it was mine! The color orange has always reminded me of that and 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. I was 13 years old and in grade 8 when my son Jeremy was born. Because my grandmother and mother both attended residential school for 10 years each, I never knew what a parent was supposed to be like. With the help of my aunt, Agness Jack, I was able to raise my son and have him know me as his mother. I went to a treatment centre for healing when I was 27 and have been on this healing journey since then. I finally get it, that the feeling of worthlessness and insignificance, ingrained in me from my first day at the mission, affected the way I lived my life for many years. Even now, when I know nothing could be further than the truth, I still sometimes feel that I don’t matter. Even with all the work I’ve done! I am honored to be able to tell my story so that others may benefit and understand, and maybe other survivors will feel comfortable enough to share their stories.