The Next Chapter

Phyllis Webstad reflects on inspiring Orange Shirt Day and starting a movement

The author and Orange Shirt Day founder talks about creating a children's book based on her residential school story.
Orange Shirt Day founder Phyllis Webstad. (Lenard Monkman/CBC)
Phyllis Webstad was six years old in 1973 when she was put in a residential school in British Columbia and stripped of her brand new orange shirt. (orangeshirtday.org)

Phyllis Webstad was born on Dog Creek Reserve and is Northern Secwepemc from the Stswecem'c Xgat'tem First Nation. 

The British Columbia-based Webstad is the author of Phyllis's Orange Shirt, which reflects the author's experience having her favourite orange shirt taken from her on her first day at residential school. It is the inspiration for the Orange Shirt Day movement, which is a day to reflect upon the treatment of First Nations people in Canada.

Webstad spoke to The Next Chapter about how Phyllis's Orange Shirt and Orange Shirt Day came to be.

A shiny orange shirt

"In July of 1973, my grandmother brought me to town to buy something to wear. I chose a shiny orange shirt. Just like any other six-year-old, I was happy to be going to school — I didn't know exactly what was to come.

"When I got to the residential school, it was pee-your-pants terror to be there, to realize that I wasn't going home. My shirt was taken away. No matter what I did, they wouldn't give it back. I never got to wear my shirt again. 

Just like any other six-year-old, I was happy to be going to school — I didn't know exactly what was to come.

"It was a full school year that I was there. We could cry and cry — and no one would tend to us. There was no one hugging us.

"There was no one telling us that it would be OK. We were just there and fed. No one to tend to our emotions or to our fears or to anything." 

The power of Orange Shirt Day

"I'm humbled and honoured that my story is a vehicle for change across Canada. It's surreal. I'm not sure whether there are earthly words to say that my story was chosen. I used to question myself: Why and why me? But then why not me? 

I'm humbled and honoured that my story is a vehicle for change across Canada.

"It came along at a very timely time when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was wrapping up and Canadians were looking at what the next step might be. 

"Orange Shirt Day was chosen, I guess, as that next step. From the very beginning, it's like the whole movement has been divinely guided — that there's something up above that is in control, and that is having things go the way they are." 

Phyllis Webstad's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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