In April 2013, Phyllis Webstad shared her orange shirt story for the very first time.
Webstad, a third-generation residential school survivor from Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation, spoke at a media event organized by the St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School Commemoration Project in Williams Lake, B.C., and told the crowd how, at the age of six, she was excited for her first day at St. Joseph’s Mission Indian Residential School.
Webstad had chosen a bright orange shirt to wear for the occasion, which she had picked out on a shopping trip with her grandmother. But when she arrived at school, her shirt was taken from her. She never saw it again.
Those at the event recognized Webstad’s orange shirt as a symbol of the legacy of residential schools, and on September 30, 2013, the first Orange Shirt Day was held in various communities. Now, eight years later, Orange Shirt Day—a day to educate and raise awareness about Canada’s residential school system—is commemorated across the country.
This year, the significance of Orange Shirt Day was underscored by the identification of more than one thousand unmarked graves at residential schools—a revelation that led countless Canadians to wear an orange shirt, or hang one outside their houses, in honour of the children who never returned home.
This fall, a years-long effort by Webstad and others culminated in the creation of a federal holiday on September 30 honouring residential school survivors and their families, officially known as the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
It’s been a busy year for Webstad, who, as ambassador and founder of the Orange Shirt Society, continues to raise awareness about the residential school system. She has written three children’s books about her experience and regularly speaks at events. It’s been “scary, overwhelming and exciting,” says Webstad. “I can’t find any better words than that.”
Meet all of our 2021 Doris Anderson Award winners here.