As a crowd of people in orange shirts watched a flag of remembrance rise to half mast, the woman whose experience inspired the colourful display looked on.
In 1973, Phyllis Webstad was stripped of a new orange shirt purchased by her grandmother on her first day at the St. Joseph Mission residential school in Williams Lake, B.C. The action left her feeling as though she didn’t matter and sparked the movement that would eventually become Orange Shirt Day and the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
On Friday, Sept. 23, Brock University welcomed Webstad to its main campus to participate in the raising of the Survivors’ Flag, which is meant to honour residential school survivors and all the lives and communities impacted by the residential school system in Canada.
The flag raising was the first in a week of events and displays at the University to recognize the multigenerational legacy of the residential school system.
While on campus, Webstad participated in a lunch with members of the Brock community and signed books in the newly renamed Hadiyaˀdagénhahs First Nations, Métis and Inuit Student Centre. The Centre also renamed its library of Indigenous literature and media the Phyllis Webstad Library in her honour.
As she took in the library that now shares her name, Webstad said it was important to include post-secondary schools in the places she visits and to highlight their supports for Indigenous students.
“I know when I was in college, the Indigenous people there didn’t have a place to go to and very few resources, but today there are all kinds of supports to help students succeed,” she said. “My grandsons will have places like this and people who care about them to help them study in whatever area they choose. As a grandmother, it’s a relief to know they will be treated with respect and encouraged in their education.”
Having brought her Pedagogy and Indigenous Arts class to participate in the flag raising, Brock’s Acting Vice-Provost, Indigenous Engagement Robyn Bourgeois said Webstad’s visit served as a reminder of the need to continue to learn and teach about a part of history many students didn’t learn about in school.
“Phyllis Webstad is the whole reason the Orange Shirt Day exists, and to have this opportunity to meet and learn from her is a powerful way for Brock to honour the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. We honour her life and those of the thousands of Indigenous children impacted by Indian residential schools.”
Events to mark the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation continue at the University and in the community until Saturday, Oct. 1.