When six-year-old Phyllis Webstad was forcibly taken from her grandmother and sent to the Mission School near Williams Lake, British Columbia in 1973, she was stripped of her clothes and made to shower together with other scared young children.
This was the terrifying introduction many Indigenous youth across Canada had to a residential school system endorsed by government and mandated to rob them of their culture. The truth is that it robbed them of so much more.
Phyllis Webstad’s story of being stripped of the new orange shirt her grandmother had gifted her has become an introduction for many Canadians to the experiences of those forced into residential schools. Orange Shirt Day was first held in 2013, and September 30th was chosen as it marked the time of year that young Indigenous children would have been taken from their homes, communities, and families.
The truth behind Phyllis Webstad’s story is of fear and loss. The symbolism of the orange shirt is powerful and can be understood by children. We know through the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that the experiences of those forced into residential schools is hard to talk about. We know that countless survivors experienced physical, psychological, and sexual abuse. We know that unmarked graves continue to be discovered on the sites of former residential schools across the country. We know that the trauma inflicted on survivors and their families is lasting and the generational harm continues to be felt.
We know these truths because survivors of Canada’s residential school system have told us. If the survivors and families of those who did not survive can share their truth with us, we must listen, learn, and understand. While we may not individually have had a hand in carrying out this cultural genocide, we can support Indigenous people as they reclaim all that is theirs. As Canadians, this is our truth.
Designating September 30th as National Truth and Reconciliation Day was one of the calls to action the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada made 8 years ago. Nova Scotia first designated this holiday in 2021.
The intention of the day is for us to learn about the legacy of the residential schools and reflect on our own personal and collective role in reconciliation. The path toward true reconciliation begins with understanding the truth behind stories like Phyllis Webstad’s.
As we enter into Mi’kmaq History Month in October, reflecting on the 94 Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission can help us channel our best intentions into meaningful action. But on September 30th, I encourage all Nova Scotians to seek out opportunities to listen, learn and commit to reconciliACTION.
The preceding is a statement from Joseph Fraser, Director & CEO of the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission.
- National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation
- Former Shubenacadie Indian Residential School National Historic Site (canada.ca)
- 21 things you may not know about the Indian Act | CBC News
- The story behind the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation | APTN News
- National Day of Truth and Reconciliation: Canadian Human Rights Commission (YouTube)
- Truth and Reconciliation | Halifax Public Libraries
- Expect more residential school grave sites to be uncovered, warns Sinclair (CTV News/YouTube)
- 'We were little enslaved people': Known only as Number 49, Membertou woman recalls horrors she endured at N.S. residential school (SaltWire)