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SFU marks 10th anniversary of Orange Shirt Day with Phyllis Webstad

Students, faculty, staff honour survivors of residential schools and bear witness

Phyllis Webstad was the recipient of a honorary degree on Friday, Oct. 6. Two days before, she was the centre of an event that marked the 10th anniversary of Orange Shirt Day. SFU.

There were nearly 100 people at the Diamond Family Auditorium on Wednesday, Oct. 4 to mark the 10th anniversary of the founding of Orange Shirt Day by author Phyllis Webstad. At this event, Webstad–who received an honorary doctorate from SFU two days later–was the guest speaker. Varying shades of orange filled the space as people listened to Webstad speak.

Chris Lewis, Director, Indigenous Initiatives and Reconciliation and the Wednesday event’s host, said that all attendees were there to bear witness and have a duty to speak about what they see and hear.

It was a powerful, deeply moving ceremony, dedicated to all the Indigenous children who were forcibly taken from their homes to residential schools for nearly a century. Some children were returned home; many are today’s survivors like Webstad, who have been telling their truth for decades. Some children never returned home. While many of them have never been found, the remains of others were discovered in the past few years in mass graves near the sites of residential schools.

There was an atmosphere of solemnity and mourning in the auditorium as Lewis called on several elders and members of the indigenous family of SFU to be witnesses. One of those Lewis called on included SFU President Joy Johnson who said, “my parents are the great-grandchildren of settlers on the land, they came from Scandinavia to Canada, not realizing that they were settling on occupied land…but they have learned over the years, as I have.” She added, “SFU is committed to upholding Truth and Reconciliation, and as I am always reminded, truth comes first.”

Webstad went on to share with the crowd the story of her healing journey. “It actually started in 1994, that was the year I decided I would no longer drink. I wasn’t an alcoholic, but I was going down that path, and I decided that I wanted to be a mentor to my family. Between 1994 and 1997, I did everything that I was told to get better,” she explained.

Webstad spoke about a vision she had at a sweat lodge in Kamloops in 1997. While overcome with emotion, she saw a vision of her grandfather with glistening lights in the background, telling her that she was on the right path, and that she should keep doing what she was doing. The importance of that event only came to her much later, after the remains of 215 children were discovered buried on the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School in 2021. “It was not until the Kamloops 215 happened that it was a big realization that’s where the sweat was, that the children were right there, the Kamloops 215. I didn’t know about them at the time, it was that glistening in the background,” she elaborated.

Webstad recounted the events of her first day at St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School in 1973, where she arrived at the age of six wearing a new orange shirt from her grandmother. The school staff took away her shirt on the first day and ignored her anguish over losing her grandmother’s gift. The small children at the school comforted one another as there were no adults to comfort them. Webstad added that the grounds of St. Joseph’s Mission were searched in recent years using ground Penetrating Radar (GPR), Magnetometry and Terrestrial LiDAR in 2021 and 2022.

According to the Williams Lake First Nations (WLFN) website, “to date, the GPR found 93 reflections that have been recorded at the former St. Joseph’s Mission. All reflections in the GPR data have been marked and reviewed through a rigorous quality control process, and each reflection shows characteristics indicative of human burials. Throughout the Phase 2 geophysical investigation, WLFN used the same method of GPR technology to survey approximately 18 additional hectares of land. To date, 66 reflections in that Phase 2 area have been recorded which display characteristics indicative of potential human remains. WLFN emphasizes that no geophysical investigation can provide absolute certainty as to the presence of human remains, and that excavation of these reflection areas would be required to make a definitive determination.”

Speaking with The Beacon, Webstad said, “I couldn’t even have thought where this would be in ten years. If I had a business plan and I tried to execute it, it wouldn’t have happened this way. But I know that I’ll continue showing up, doing what I need to do and doing the right thing, as much as I am physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually capable, I will keep doing what I need to do.”

As for how she envisions the future of Orange Shirt Day, Webstad told the Beacon, “I think there will be, maybe, some international traveling, I see in my future. There are other countries that have the same history, Australia for one, that I’d like to go over there.”

Reflecting on the past ten years, Webstad said that Orange Shirt Day has exceeded all her expectations and transcended borders. “It has a life of its own…from the very first day, Orange Shirt Day went viral in 2013, but I had no idea it would just continue to grow. In the beginning it was just speaking with elementary and high-school students, and then later corporations and government came on,” she said.

Recently, Webstad has been thinking about slowing down the pace of engagements, events and commitments. “It’s been ten years, so now I’m going to stop and reflect and rethink about what it is that I want to do and spend and focus on and how to go about that, while still respecting myself. I’ve just been trying to do too much, I need to stop doing that, to be kinder to myself,” she told the Beacon.

As for where to start as a non-indigenous ally, Webstad’s advice was, “there’s the 94 calls to action to become familiar with…What I want is for people to open their minds and hearts and listen to survivors. One day there will be no survivors left. Google is always a good idea, there’s always ideas on what people are doing out there,” she added, “Just suit up, show up and be willing, and what you’re supposed to do will be revealed to you.”

This piece was made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

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