Editor’s note: The story below may trigger difficult or traumatic thoughts and memories. The Indian Residential School Survivors Society’s 24-hour crisis line is available at 1-866-925-4419.
The rain didn’t matter. Thousands showed up to hear Phyllis Webstad speak at Heritage Park in Mission for Canada’s first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation
“Today is history in the making,” Webstad said.
As an author hailing from the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation, she has written numerous books about her experience in the residential school system.
Orange Shirt Day originated from a traumatic childhood memory Webstad shared at a reunion in 2013. On her first day at St. Joseph’s Indian Residential School near Williams Lake, she was stripped of her clothes, including the new orange shirt that was a gift from her grandmother. She never got it back.
Every Sept. 30 since that reunion – the time of year when Indigenous children were taken from their family homes – that painful symbol has served as a lightning rod, forcing Canada to acknowledge its colonial history.
The bright symbol has grown more recognizable each year, and now the date has been proclaimed a federal holiday.
Webstad described the attempts (since 2015) to implement a statutory holiday for survivors, their families and their communities in remembrance of those who never made it home.
She said she found out on May 28 that it would become a federal holiday, after receiving a call from the Canadian Heritage Minister.
“I was so happy, I didn’t know what to think,” she said. “Within a week, it had received royal assent to be what it is today – the first national statutory holiday for truth and reconciliation.”
Taking place at the site of the former St. Mary’s Residential School, the event was organized in partnership with Siwal Si’wes Indigenous Department, School District 75, the City of Mission and the Mission Friendship Centre.
Several Indigenous elders spoke about the trauma they, and their families, endured attending residential schools, expressing gratitude for the masses of people who showed up in the rain.
“We are not asking for pity. We are asking for understanding. And we need general society to accept the atrocities that happened,” said Chief Johnny Williams, elected leader of Sq’ewlets.
“All the people that are here, I have to say, it warms my heart. I wasn’t expecting to see this many.”
The elders sat side-by-side underneath a covered area, facing huddled crowds of onlookers who listened in silence to each speaker.
“Today we are still fighting, and some people – not all people – they want us to get over it. But we can’t, because it’s our history. It was a war, and it’s still a war that we have to go through, and I need your help,” said Cheryl Gabriel, an elder from Kwantlen First Nation. “I’m proud of you, all of you, for coming here.”