District recognizing Orange Shirt Day

School District No. 57 Superintendent Rod Allen, second from right, and trustees Bob Thompson, left, Sharel Warrington, Trent Derrick, Betty Bekkering, Shuirose Valimohamed, Ron Polillo and Tim Bennett wore orange shirts to the SD 57 public board meeting on Sept. 24.

Every Child Matters is the message of Orange Shirt Day, which happens on Monday, Sept. 30.

A young Phyllis Webstad is shown. Webstad had her beloved orange shirt taken away from her on her first day at St. Joseph Mission Residential School near Williams Lake.

During a special trip to town, six-year-old Phyllis Webstad picked out a bright orange shirt for her first day at St. Joseph Mission Residential School. She was excited about going to school and wearing the shirt, which her Granny had bought for her.

But when Webstad arrived at St. Joseph, a two-hour bus ride from her home on Dog Creek Reserve near Williams Lake, her shirt was taken away from her. She pleaded for its return but never saw it again.

This was the unhappy beginning of her time in residential school in the fall of 1973.

On Monday, Sept. 30, School District No. 57 will be recognizing Orange Shirt Day, which started in 2013 as a legacy of the St. Joseph Mission Residential School Commemoration Project and Reunion that took place in Williams Lake in May of that year. Orange Shirt Day was inspired by Webstad’s experience and is now marked across Canada.

“I think it’s bringing awareness to people about the residential schools, the effects of residential schools, trauma they may have caused,” said Pam Spooner, Director of Aboriginal Education in School District No. 57. “It also shows the importance of knowing this truth piece in the history of Canada before we can all move forward together to reconcile any harm that was done.”

As written in Webstad's 2018 book, The Orange Shirt Story, the end of September was chosen as a time of recognition because September was the month when children were taken from their homes to be placed in residential schools. One elder described September as “the crying month.”

Children were separated from their families in an effort to assimilate them into the dominant white society, Webstad wrote in an afterword in her book.

The residential school system was funded by the Canadian government and administered by Christian churches. Roman Catholic bishop Hubert O’Connor served as principal at St. Joseph when he was a priest in the 1960s. During that time period, he allegedly committed multiple sexual assaults, for which he was charged in 1991.

Spooner, who is Gitxsan, said she believes today’s students are able to make the connection to the significance of Orange Shirt Day and the impact of the residential school system.

“I think more awareness is being brought to why their grandma and grandpa are the way they are, why their parents are the way they are,” she said. “I think that is opening people’s eyes, whereas in the past we never taught this stuff.

“People are in awe when they’re starting to learn this stuff. It’s like, ‘Why was this never talked about before?’ You could live right beside a reserve, and at the dinner table people wouldn’t even question, ‘Why are there no kids over there? Why are there no kids outside playing?’ No one even questioned it, Indigenous and non-Indigenous. It was just something you had to do, otherwise you would get in trouble.”

Webstad was at St. Joseph Mission in the 1973-74 school year. The school itself operated from 1890 to 1981.

The last residential school in Canada – Gordon Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan — closed in 1996.

On Monday, Orange Shirt Day, Spooner will be at Nusdeh Yoh Elementary School, the first Aboriginal Choice school in the province. She was principal at Nusdeh Yoh for three years and will be returning to take part in the school’s Orange Shirt Day activities. In the morning, Spooner and Lheidli T’enneh Chief Clayton Pountney will visit classrooms, talk with students and read The Orange Shirt Story.

At 11 a.m. there will be a school assembly during which residential school survivor Godwin Barton will tell his own story. There will also be a video presentation and drumming. The assembly will then move outside for the forming of a traditional circle and will close with a moment of silence at 11:45.

Schools across the district will mark Orange Shirt Day in their own ways.

“It’s important that we understand the intergenerational impact that (the residential school system) has had on families and recognize those who did not survive the residential school experience,” said Tim Bennett, Board Chair for School District No. 57. “So we will encourage everyone to wear their orange shirt on Monday and take a few minutes on Monday – and every day – to reflect on this negative part of our history in Canada.”