September 30th is the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, known as Orange Shirt Day, in Canada. It is the day to recognize the effects of the Canadian Indian residential system and honor survivors, their families, and those who never made it home. In this special episode, Douglas Nelson speaks with none other than the founder of Orange Shirt Day and the Orange Shirt Society, Phyllis Webstad. Phyllis shares her story and healing journey as a survivor and how, in 2013, she helped raise awareness that the Federal government took notice. She then takes us into how they run their organization, attract corporate partners, and utilize merchandise sales. Looking ahead, she then shares her thoughts on what action can people and corporations take to show their solidarity. So tune in and take part in this important conversation.
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Orange Shirt Day: Changing The Conversation On Truth And Reconciliation With Phyllis Webstad
We have an extra special episode. You are not going to want to miss it. Phyllis Webstad joins us. Phyllis is the Founder of Orange Shirt Day and the Orange Shirt Society. She is one of the people most responsible for the great awakening as it relates to the truth and reconciliation and Orange Shirt Day itself. We had a great conversation. I’m thrilled to share it with you as a part of season seven. Enjoy. You are going to learn a lot. Buy her books. Know Phyllis Webstad’s story. Thanks for reading.
Phyllis, let’s jump right in. I’m so excited to have you on the show. My first question is, when you started Orange Shirt Day in 2013, what were you hoping to accomplish then? What have you accomplished since then that you are really proud of?
I’m happy to be here. Thank you for having me. In 2013, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission came to Williams Lake. I wasn’t working at the time, so I was able to attend meetings. We also planned a reunion to tack onto the five-day TRC event of truth-telling. I was able to tell my Orange Shirt story for the first time because we wanted to invite the ranchers, our ranching community, the government, and the indigenous.
We wanted everyone to know they were welcome to come and hear the truths of survivors during that week. A person that was on our committee was doing some research about the TRC. Murray Sinclair challenged Canadians in a video to keep the conversation happening after the TRC wrapped up. As we know, that was in June 2015.
The story is in our book called Orange Shirt Day. She had the idea in the bathtub. She thought, “If there’s Pink Shirt Day, why can’t we have Orange Shirt Day?” Originally, it was for the Cariboo Chilcotin here in Williams Lake. We are about a 7-hour drive North of Vancouver or a 1-hour plane ride. We have an airport. People think that we don’t but we do. A couple of others approached and asked me if we could use my story for Orange Shirt Day in the Cariboo Chilcotin just for our area, our school district, to talk about the St. Joseph Mission Residential School, where three generations of my family attended. Originally, it was just for our area.
The book Orange Shirt Day is the story of a woman who called me. Orange Shirt Day was created in mid-April 2013. We had a couple of media events. Between the 1st and the 2nd media event, Orange Shirt Day was created. She called me and said, “This Orange Shirt Day is such a good idea. Can I help you make it go viral?” When I do my presentations, I show a picture of her.
Although I had been on my healing journey since 1994, I had never made the connection between my life and my healing journey to residential school. I thought it was just alcohol. If people stopped drinking, my world would be fine. I entered a program but never questioned, “Why are they drinking?” My program says it’s a disease. I never thought about it anymore.
During that time, I was having a hard time. My bones ached. I don’t do drugs or alcohol. I chose not to do that, even Tylenol. Nothing would help. She phoned me during that time, wanting to help me make Orange Shirt Day go viral. I didn’t ask her what her plan was. I thought she would show up and help with chairs or something when we had Orange Shirt Day.
I flew down in mid-September to Vancouver for the TRC event of truth-telling they were having there. It was at the PNE Grounds. I was walking along, my backpack on my back, and taking in what was happening there. Somebody handed me a 4×6 photo-size orange card. I have a copy of it in the book. I have the original in my scrapbook. It said, “Wear orange on September 30th to honor residential school survivors and their families. It had a Facebook page.” I was looking at it. I was like, “This sounds like me. What’s going on here?”
That’s what viral means.
Since then, it has hit Facebook. From the very first year, it went viral in 2013. That’s the story of how it was born and continues to grow and grow. As we know, 2021 was the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation to implement TRCs recommendation number 80 to establish a day for communities, survivors, and their families to commemorate the day for eternity.
I know that you, through your efforts and the Orange Shirt Society, have been given a lot of credit or congratulations for being the face of making sure that National Day for Truth and Reconciliation came to be. You helped raise awareness in such a way that it was something the Federal Government had to do. How did that moment feel for you when that day was declared?
There’s a bit of a story on that. There was one bill that was in the House of Commons. It’s because of the election, it died, and they reintroduced another one. That one was stuck in the House of Commons at the third reading. No matter what we did, I tried to stay out of all of the politics. I was right in there with the politicians trying to figure out letter writing and phone calling to figure out how to get it out of the House of Commons into the Senate.
If I had to appear one more time before the House of Commons, I was going to give them heck if I had to do it a third time. I credit Tk’emlúps 215, the children, for the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on Thursday, Chief Casimir of Tk’emlúps announced to the world the findings. It was 5:00 when I was heading home that day that Thursday.
My son called and said, “Mom, watch the news.” I called my aunt. She didn’t have a TV, so I told her to come out to my place. My aunt has a book out on Kamloops Residential School and had interviewed a lot of them who told her about the burials. That was Thursday night. Even though we knew, it was still hard. We had lost members of our family.
I got a call that morning from my contacts in both the House of Commons and the Senate, saying that the third reading would go through that day, and it did. By the next Thursday, it had received royal assent. That was a whirlwind of a week. I had gone to Kamloops after the initial shock had worn off. My son and mother live in Kamloops, so I had to check on them to see if they were okay.
To go to Kamloops, I canceled a lot of appointments. I still haven’t made those appointments again, except for my hair appointment. I got a hair appointment. I had a nail, toe, chiropractor, and counseling. I had to cancel all that. By Thursday night, I had made sure everybody was okay. My two oldest grandchildren, I took them out of school just to talk to them and assure them that all of granny’s family came home and that everybody in our family was accounted for. They knew what was going on but they didn’t know how to ask the questions.
We were walking down Kamloops Street because the mayor wanted to see us. We were off to the mayor’s office, slurping on our drinks and talking. We stopped in the middle of the street for a good ten minutes, talking about what was happening and their questions. They thanked me after that and said, “Thank you, grandma, for making this time because we didn’t know what to do. We didn’t know who to talk to.” That was important. The National Day, I credit Tk’emlúps 215 for making that happen. No matter what we did, it didn’t help.
When I got the message on my text from the Senate that it had received royal assent, I was sitting in my car, outside the mall, looking at a tree, the wind blowing, thinking I needed a haircut. That’s all I could think about. The mall was closed, and I had tried to call all kinds of places. It wasn’t anything burning bush magical. It was a whole bunch of emotion. I’m glad that it has passed.
Thank you very much for sharing that. I’ve heard the Tk’emlúps 215 was described as the National Great Awakening to the issue of residential schools. I’m curious about what you saw as the Orange Shirt Society in the broader Canadian context. With that awareness, what did it mean for Orange Shirt Day and the Orange Shirt Society in general?
With any question, you get a story. The first Orange Shirt Day was in 2013. I was working full-time. After my book tour in 2018, I realized that I needed to do this full-time. I couldn’t take another leave of absence from my job. I was President of the Orange Shirt Society at that time. In early 2019, I decided that I needed to do this full-time, and the options were to go out on my own and figure out how to pay my bills.
At that time, the Vancity Credit Union was taking an interest in us and gifted us $40,000. With a society that had less than $10,000 in our account, we accepted the money. I stepped down as President and became the first staff member. We opened our office in Williams Lake in April 2019. Another board member and I were working full-time. We are not a big organization.
Some people think we have offices in every other province and a French department but we don’t. Up until June of 2020, it was just me in the office. Thanks to Tk’emlúps 215 and the awakening of the world, as you had mentioned. They are taking a greater interest, and people get it now. There are still deniers, and they probably always will be. We are now six full-time staff. I have an assistant. She’s on holiday now.
We have six staff. We moved into a bigger building on the Williams Lake First Nation Band Lands in March. We are planning a gala in November 2022 in Vancouver for our sponsors to thank them and present who we are and what we do. It’s catapulted us. We’ve never had the capacity to respond to the Orange Shirt movement adequately. We still don’t, but we are doing our best.
Phyllis, your organization, has attracted an impressive array of corporate partners. It would be the envy of any organization anywhere in the country to see the type of corporate support you have been able to attract. How do you manage those relationships? With a team of six, there’s quite a lot to manage there.
There is. What is important to me is relationships. I like to have a meal with people, share a meal, and get to know who they are. When I’m traveling, I like to call up people, “Want to have lunch?” There’s no ulterior motive other than to get to know people. A lot of people think that we are government funded. We are not. They talk about grassroots organizations. That’s us. We survive on merchandise sales and shirt sales. London Drugs is selling our shirt, Dreamcatcher Promotions, McCabe, and a couple of others, like Kit & Kaboodle here in Williams Lake, and also on what I can make presenting and telling my story.Relationships are important. When you talk to people, there's no ulterior motive other than to get to know them. Click To Tweet
I’m recording my story. We had our annual family fish camp. I had a film crew down there getting some footage. That will go along with my story. I’m not always telling my story with emotion. That way, companies, government, and schools can play my story, and I can come in for 15 to 20 minutes and have a discussion. That way, it’s not so emotionally taxing on me.
Your website, OrangeShirtDay.org, has a great summary of your story, which is incredibly powerful. For someone who doesn’t know or hasn’t encountered that, I encourage them all to look at that website and see the powerful human emotion behind Phyllis’s story and the movement it has spawned. We’ve also seen a lot of retailers pop up with their own versions of an orange shirt. They have phrases like, “Partial proceeds,” or they are silent on that. How can people who want to be supportive of your organization know that they are purchasing something that is going to benefit your organization directly?
On our website, we have about five organizations listed. I had hoped to have a whole section on our website of those that say they will donate. Some say they will, and they don’t but we don’t police that and go after them. We trust that they will. Others have to rely on people’s humanity to know what is the right place and the wrong place. I know on Facebook, there’s Whack-A-Mole where you whack one down, and another one pops up. There are a lot of them all over the world like Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Vietnam, Egypt, and all of the places.
Our website is our orange shirt or our merchandise policy that our shirts are to be orange. You think that’s a given but many are printing, “Every Child Matters,” in black, purple, pink, and white, which I don’t agree with. I will never wear one of those shirts. I just ask that it be, “Every Child Matters,” and that it be orange. They can put whatever design they want on it as long as those two criteria are met.
Since the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation and the greater prominence of Orange Shirt Day, in its own right, we’ve seen a lot of people wearing orange shirts in solidarity. Beyond wearing the shirts, what can Canadians do to support indigenous communities on September 30th and all the rest of the days of the year? What’s the action you want people to take after that important show of solidarity?
I had hoped to have some visuals out there but it hasn’t happened. On some suggestions, I know the National Center has some advertising on their website about what people can do. I get asked this a lot. You will get as many answers as there are people on what to do, so this is a Phyllis Webstad version. Read. There’s a lot of reading to do. There’s the TRC report, the 94 Calls to Action. There’s the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and two-spirit report. Read the Indian Act.
That’s still valid or used nowadays. I’m going to be at a college in Ontario. They advised me that they are starting a Phyllis Webstadversary for indigenous students in the Niagara Falls area. That’s the second I know of. In Canada, there’s one called the Orange Shirtversary but that’s the first one in my name. I thought, “What a great idea.” Whenever companies, governments or corporate ask me what they can do, I’m going to tell them, “Seek out your local educational institutions and see how you can support them.” It’s not only indigenous.Seek out your local educational institutions and see how you can support them. Click To Tweet
For instance, when I went to do a presentation at my grandson’s elementary on the more challenged part of town, I gave up on waiting for the equipment to do my presentation. I grabbed my book as time was running out and started talking to them. They never did get the equipment working. Educational institutions need help. Murray Sinclair said, “It’s education that got us into this mess, and it’s education that’s going to get us out.” That’s what I remembered.
That’s my new answer when people ask me what they can do. In addition to finding out whose territory you are on, every inch of Canada is some indigenous territory. Find out what the nearest residential school was or is. Is it still standing? When was it torn down? How many generations of people went? Are there any survivors alive still? What are their stories? What are their family stories? Are there intergenerational impacts that we still encounter nowadays? Indigenous people are losing their lives on a daily basis nowadays because of what happened at these residential schools and day schools.
That’s moving and powerful advice. As a show that speaks to people in the charitable and not-for-profit sector across the country, especially when people ask what you can do, you say, “Give to support education,” is a powerful message to deliver. Phyllis, you have been modest in describing your own impact on the changing of the conversation with respect to Truth and Reconciliation. You build something a very powerful movement. Can you tell me who you go to for advice when you face a challenge or the thought of having to speak to parliament for a third time? I’m sure there have been other challenges. Who is it that you go to seek advice?
I’m glad that you asked that because it’s my opportunity to talk about my book, me and my family’s book, which came out last September 2021, called Beyond The Orange Shirt Story. It is six generations of my family’s story, starting with my great-grandmother and grandmother. My mother has a chapter here as well. Not so much now, but in the early days, I was always asked by teachers. They said, “The students are asking about your mother. How come you never talk about her? What about your father?” That’s covered here. My aunt, who raised me from ten years old, her story is here, and my eldest aunt, the bit of her story, as well as my son. My son was at the last operating residential school in Canada when it closed in 1996.
I never did have any more children. My son has 5 children, so I have 5 beautiful grandchildren. To answer that question, it’s my family that I go to and my cousins, particularly my mother, my eldest aunt, and my aunt, who raised me. They are my safe people to go to. My Aunt Agnes often appears with me when I do presentations. When I do my presentation, I say that my experience at residential school was a walk in the park compared to granny, my mom, my aunts, and my uncles.
My aunt, my mom, and my eldest aunt have been my greatest teachers. They have ten years each of experience at residential schools. They have more experience to share. For example, I was contacted by the national. I didn’t meet their deadline but I was contacted by them to do an interview on whether I thought the queen needed to apologize.
Reading that, it’s like, “I don’t know. I never get to think about things like that, whether the queen should apologize.” I happened to be seeing my aunt, the one that raised me. Her name is Agnes. I asked her what she thought. She thought that the queen should. The queen should have known what was happening to us. She said that every morning it started out with getting out of their desks, turning around to the back of the classroom, and paying homage to the queen. There was a picture in the back. I don’t know what they said. They would turn around and sing O Canada. That was her response but I wouldn’t. That’s not my experience.
My experience is in my first book called Orange Shirt Day. I don’t have too many memories of that year but they are the ones that I fall back on to get some perspective and ask questions. When granny was alive, I always went to her to get her perspective or experience. Sometimes she would talk about it. Sometimes she wouldn’t. She mainly talked about what they did, never how she felt. I don’t think I ever heard her say how she felt being there and away from her family but she told many stories about what they did.
It’s a powerful distinction there between speaking about how you feel about something versus just describing it. Is there something that you wish everyone knew about Orange Shirt Day? If everyone in Canada could hear one message and understand what it is, what would you tell them?
Orange Shirt Day was created to honor survivors and their families and remember those who never made it home. I had that wording since 2013 when people were asking what it was. It’s to honor survivors and their families because their families are impacted and still are from survivor experiences. We’ve always known about the children and remember those that never made it home. There are many that are still around the former sites, all across Canada, as we are hearing now. It’s a conversation starter, a door opener to a topic that is hard.Orange shirt day was created to honor survivors, their families, and those that never made it home. Click To Tweet
It’s a hard topic to talk about but I offer my story as a conversation starter, a starting point. I’ve heard many professors and teachers say they start with my story. They may be survivors themselves, which then allows them to talk about their story, others also telling their story or to open the conversation anyway. What happened to us was real. There are still deniers in this world that we are telling a bunch of lies. It’s hard to believe that there are still people like that who think that but there are out there. That’s what I want people to know.
It’s very clear messages there. You mentioned that your story is the starting point. As we head towards September 30th, 2022, are we making progress?
Yes, we are. I remember a couple of years after Orange Shirt Day started, I was invited to Victoria to speak at an elementary. They usually bring me to the gymnasium. On this occasion, it was the week leading up to Orange Shirt Day, and they brought me through the entire school to walk the halls on the way to the gym from the office. Every class was in orange. I’d never seen that before. I was in tears. I couldn’t even talk by the time I got to the gym.
That’s tough for a speaker.
To think that this was happening in every city and province across Canada was unfathomable. It’s still unbelievable. What I want from all of this is for my grandchildren to have a different world than I lived in. I went to apply for a loan to start a business. I was asked, “Do you people file tax returns?” It was assumed that I was on welfare because I was an indigenous woman, a person my age who had never received schooling about us and our history in school. The ones that have taken the time to understand and be aware and the way that they treat me like a valuable human being, I can see that they’ve taken the time to educate themselves. They have empathy, and they care.
It’s easier to have a conversation than being stared at and thought less than that I’m on welfare. My grandchildren and indigenous children all across Canada will have a different world because they will become future judges, police officers, lawyers, and bankers in Williams Lake. 2026 will be the first year that the graduating class we will have had. 2013 plus 13, so 2026, Orange Shirt Day is learning in their whole school system. We at the Orange Shirt Society are going to make a big deal out of graduation in 2026.
That’s certainly something to look forward to. Phyllis, I appreciate your willingness to share parts of your story and your perspective on Orange Shirt Day. I encourage everyone to look at the website, read this story, and see the tremendous work the organization has done. To any of you who are responsible for corporate sponsorships, you would do well to do half as well as Orange Shirt Society has done. Phyllis, thank you not only now, but thank you for all that you’ve done. It is really impressive, and we are truly grateful for your efforts. Thank you.
You are welcome. Thank you for having me.
About Phyllis Webstad
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, 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 wore 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.