On Wednesday (Sept. 25), students at Kent Elementary were able to learn a little more about residential schools from the woman who started the Orange Shirt Day movement.
Phyllis Webstad was at the Agassiz elementary school in the morning for an assembly in advance of Orange Shirt Day, which will be taking place on Monday, Sept. 30, and stopped in at Hope Secondary for another presentation in the afternoon.
A member of the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation (Canoe Creek Indian Band), Webstad was taken to the St. Joseph Mission in William’s Lake when she was six. Although she only attended the school for one year, the impacts of her time there stayed with her — particularly the story of when the nuns at the Catholic residential school took away the shiny orange shirt her grandmother had bought her.
In 2013, Webstad shared her story as part of the St. Joseph Mission Residential School (1891-1981) commemoration project and reunion. From there, orange shirt day evolved into a global event to remember the impacts of residential schools and the legacy they have left behind.
“I think it’s important for an elder like Phyllis to come in because it brings a lot of awareness to our students, and also to our teachers and staff,” Cody Dool, the First Nations support worker at Kent Elementary, said.
“A lot of our students don’t understand or know anything about residential schools at all, so it’s like a really innocent way to bring awareness to our residential school survivors.”
Webstad’s presentation largely focused on her family’s experience in the St. Joseph Mission near Williams Lake. Webstad’s grandmother had attended the school when she was a girl, as as had her mother and all nine of her aunts and uncles.
When Webstad was in the residential school in the early 70s, the boys and girls were able to play together at the school. When her aunts and uncles were at the school, however, a fence divided the boys and the girls.
“She was up here on the girls side,” Webstad said, remembering a story her aunt had told her, “and she’d seen her brother walking up and down the fence. And she’d seen him and she knew that she was lonely for his family.
|Phyllis Webstad was at Kent Elementary Wednesday talking about Orange Shirt Day, and her experience in residential schools. (Grace Kennedy/The Observer)|
“So she gathered her sisters, and they went and they were walking on the other side of the fence,” she continued. “There was no acknowledging each other, no saying hello to each other, no touching each other or hugging. They just had to walk the fence together, and act like they weren’t talking to each other.”
In other presentations to older students, Webstad said she often goes into details about the apology the Canadian government gave for residential schools, and can be more descriptive with what happened at the residential schools.
“The elementary (schools) are the hardest,” Webstad said. “I have to really watch what I say with the younger ones. With the older ones I can tell them more, but with the younger ones it’s really just surface stuff to introduce the topic.”
Some students had already been introduced to residential schools, through the experiences of their own families.
At the end of Webstad’s presentation to the school, one student mentioned that their grandmother had been in residential school. Webstad then asked how many others had family members who were affected by residential schools: a number of students in all grades put up their hands.
“It’s the truth of the history of Canada,” Webstad said about residential schools. “It’s not just First Nation history, this is Canadian history. And Canadians that live in this country need to be aware of this dark past.”