In 1973, Phyllis Webstad was six years old and living with her grandmother on the Dog Creek reserve.
"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 wrote years later. "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."
The excitement wouldn't last.
When Webstad got to the St. Joseph Mission Residential School, she was stripped of her clothes — orange shirt and all.
"I didn't understand why they wouldn't give it back to me," Webstad wrote. "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 it was nothing."
All these years later, the story of Webstad's orange shirt has transformed into a fully fledged movement: Orange Shirt Day is Sept. 30.
The Squamish-Lillooet Regional District (SLRD) is the latest organization to get involved with the movement, which aims to shed light on the long-lasting effects of the residential school system.
At its Sept. 22 Committee of the Whole meeting, the SLRD board resolved to become a Regional District of Reconciliation, and will don orange shirts on Sept. 30.
"The board's been talking for awhile about the importance of our relationships with our local First Nations communities, and Orange Shirt Day is an opportunity to acknowledge what children and families endured in the residential schools, so we thought it was a good first step for our board," said SLRD chair Jack Crompton. "It's a first step in a long path that we are eager to walk... this is not a declaration of anything achieved. It is more a commitment to move in a direction."
It remains to be seen what physical actions will come with Orange Shirt Day, but the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's recommendations are a good place to start, said Margaret-Anne Enders of the Orange Shirt Society.
"Taking that document, really going through it with a fine-tooth comb and saying 'what are the pieces that we have control over in our little piece of the country (that we can implement)?'" Enders said. "And then advocating for the other pieces that are maybe more dependent on higher levels of government."
Though Orange Shirt Day has only been around since 2013, it's grown steadily since it was first conceived.
"There's events happening all over the place, and so it certainly has grown and we've had a lot of interest," Enders said.
The traumatic effects of residential school followed Webstad through her teenage years and well into adult life. She had her first child at 13 years old, and began her healing journey at 27 when she went to a treatment centre.
Today, she is a proud mother and grandmother who holds degrees in business administration and accounting.
"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," Webstad wrote. "Even now, when I know nothing could be further from the truth, I still sometimes feel that I don't matter."
Webstad's story can be read in full at www.orangeshirtday.org.
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