British Columbia

Orange Shirt Day: How Phyllis Webstad's 1st day at residential school inspired a movement

Students across Canada will be wearing Orange Shirts today to honour the First Nations experience at residential schools and foster a spirit of reconciliation.

'I remember going to Robinson's store and picking out a shiny orange shirt. It had string laced up in front'

Phyllis Jack Webstad's story of her first day at residential school in William's Lake, B.C., is the inspiration behind Orange Shirt Day. (

Today is Orange Shirt Day — a day to remember what happened to First Nations students at residential schools across Canada.

You've probably heard of Pink Shirt Day — a day to raise awareness around bullying that was inspired by the story of a Nova Scotia boy who was bullied for wearing a pink shirt on the first day of school.

Orange Shirt Day was inspired by Phyllis Jack Webstad, a Stswecem'c Xgat'tem First Nation elder in Williams Lake, B.C., and by her first day at residential school in 1973, when she was six.

"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," Webstad recalls in a post on the Orange Shirt Day website.

"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!"

Orange Shirt Day was inspired by the story told by Phyllis Jack Webstad about how she was stripped of her new orange shirt on her first day at residential school in 1973. (

But her first day at school was not what Webstad expected.

"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!"

And ever since then, the colour orange has held a special meaning to her.

"The colour 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," she wrote. "All of us little children were crying and no one cared."

First launched in 2013

After Webstad first told her story, Orange Shirt Day was launched in 2013 in Williams Lake to commemorate all of the residential school survivors.

It has since spread across the province to other districts such as Mission, B.C., where 300 students wearing orange will be marching to the site of a residential school Friday afternoon.

At the old school grounds, they will be met by elders who will share stories of what it was like to attend residential schools, said Joe Hislip, the district principal for aboriginal education in Mission.

Orange Shirt Day began in Williams Lake in 2013 and has since spread to schools across B.C. and Canada. (

Hislip said the day is also a learning experience for teachers as well, and he believes Orange Shirt Day is just the beginning.

"I mean, I taught just down the street from that school years ago, and I didn't know about it," he told CBC News. "I didn't go on the grounds it was just that building I drove past and I was a teacher."

He notes for the first time this year, B.C.'s new school curriculum will include Aboriginal world views and perspectives.

Orange Shirt Day has spread to schools across Canada, including Sweetgrass School near Battleford, Saskatchewan. (

With files from Deborah Goble