“We knew there were graves,” says Phyllis Webstad

Orange Shirt Foundation founder Phyllis Webstad shares her story of surviving India's boarding school system as a child in the 1970s at an Orange Shirt Day event at Niagara College's Niagara-on-the-Lake campus on March 22 September.

As a six-year-old, Phyllis Webstad arrived at St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School in Williams Lake, BC wearing a new orange shirt that her grandmother had given her.

The young girl’s shirt and the rest of her clothes were taken from her on the first day.

Today, Webstad is a survivor of the residential school system where 150,000 Indigenous children across Canada attended remote boarding schools away from their families and communities. The aim of the schools was to shed the indigenous culture and force adaptation to the settlers’ way of life. Children were forbidden to speak in their traditional language, to practice their cultural traditions. Those who resisted faced corporal punishment, causing generational trauma for survivors and their families.

Webstad is now raising awareness of what happened in boarding schools. She is the founder and ambassador of the Orange Shirt Society and travels the country to tell her story and raise awareness of the impact of the boarding school system. She has spent the past week attending a series of events leading up to the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation/Orange Shirt Day on September 30th.

Niagara this week Had a chance to speak to Webstad. Below is the interview:

Q: When the first announcements were made about the discovery of unmarked graves in Kamloops, BC, what were your immediate thoughts as a residential home survivor?

A: That was my nation. We knew there were graves. It was like it was our family and they just died. We were in the hustle and bustle for two weeks. We were in a crisis, unable to think about what to do or where to go. We turned to our culture. All of our churches started making fires. I had to go to Kamloops, where my mother, children and grandchildren live, to see if they were okay.

Q: Now that an apology has finally come from the Catholic Church, what is the next step towards reconciliation?

A: I’ve heard people say it should be compensation. I do not agree with it. Someone (the church) has to fund the language education. Our languages ​​are dying. After school or during the weekend lunch break is not good enough. It has to be treated like a job, Monday to Friday, to learn our languages. I’m 55; I could probably become fluent in no time.

Q: When the federal government instituted the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation on September 30, piggybacked on Orange Shirt Day. What are your thoughts on this?

A: I supported National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on September 30th. I was actually asked if I was okay with that. I have consulted with the House of Commons. I was involved in the process. It’s not a competition.

Q: How do you see progress in fulfilling the calls to action in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report?

A: The truth comes first. The truth has not been fully told. One day more truth will come out and shock Canadians. At the National Center for Truth and Reconciliation Survivors’ Circle… it took 150 years to tear us down and it will take 150 years to build us up again. It will not happen in my lifetime, in my children’s lifetime or in my grandchildren’s lifetime. Maybe for our great-grandchildren.

Q: How can Canadians learn to better understand the intergenerational trauma of First Nations people?

A: Find out whose area you live in. Was there a boarding school there? Has it been demolished? Where are the survivors? Are you ready to talk? Find out what happened. Many have stories to tell.

The burden is not only on the indigenous people. read this Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, read the calls to action. read this Report on missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. Attend events where survivors speak.


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