After Bill C-5 passed earlier this month, the federal government is now officially recognizing September 30 as the National day for Truth and Reconciliation (Orange Shirt Day).
This sacred day was introduced by the strength and determination of Phyllis Jack-Webstad.
The brave woman retold the story of her first day in residential schools when she was only six years old, and her clothes were stripped from her, leaving her without her favourite orange shirt given to her by her grandmother.
This orange shirt now symbolizes all children and their families that have dealt with the abuse and intergenerational trauma of the residential “school” system.
The news of the bill making royal assent came merely a day after the confirmation of the 215 children’s bodies found in Kamloops, BC.
“I was still reeling from that. I didn’t know whether to be happy or sad, cry, or jump up in joy,” said the 54-year-old woman.
“I was sitting in the parking lot, and I just sat there looking at the tree, with its leaves blowing. Even though it was a historic occasion, I just sat there in disbelief. I am a human, It’s a lot for the human.”
After hearing about the children’s remains, Webstad knew she had to check on her family first and foremost. “I have five grandchildren, and my older ones are 16 and 12. I took them out of school and spent some time with them, talking about what was happening,” she said.
“The main thing I wanted to tell them was everybody in our family was accounted for. Not to worry. Nobody’s missing in our family,” she said in tears. “My 16-year-old had me repeat that, ‘Can you say that again grandma? I want to make sure I heard you right.’”
Although September 30 has been a significant day in the houses of Indigenous communities since 2013, now the rest of the country can join in recognizing Canada’s history.
“I was very happy that it was becoming recognized, but to me, in my heart, it was always going to be September 30, whether it was recognized by the government or not,” said Helen Jarvis Montour, the organizer of the Orange Shirt day in Kahnawake.
Although optimistic about the bill, Montour believes this is one of many steps that need to be taken.
“It’s a small part that they recognize it and that they are actually saying that damage was done, but we all knew it. Anybody that was in residential schools and had families, all knew it,” she said.
When Montour found out about all of the unmarked graves, along with the inexplicable devastation, came a sense of relief. “Now the survivors are going to be believed,” she expressed.
Montour’s family was affected firsthand, as her father was a residential school survivor. “It’s another stab to the survivors. I want to honour and protect them.”
She believes that these graves are going to continue to be discovered all around Canada, and the more they look, the more they will find. “I’m just waiting for the day they start digging up the hill,” she said.
Steven Guilbeault, minister of Canadian Heritage and the politician who tabled Bill C-5, explained it’s time to acknowledge the past.
“I think it’s a dark chapter of our history, but not one that should be swept under the rug,” he said. “It’s one we need to confront, certainly in the case of non-Indigenous people.”
The minister explained that when he was younger, he was never taught about Canada’s horrific history, and it was right under his nose.
“I came from a small town called La Tuque (Quebec). I started my education at what was called an English school, which shared a schoolyard with a residential school in the town. I met some of those kids, and I had no idea,” he said.
Guilbeault expressed that his children are now being taught this history, and he hopes this will bring about frank conversations that lead to uncovering truth and understanding.
Webstad hopes that the government will act now. “People in the federal government are people. Within them and their position, they are human, and they know what the right thing to do is,” she said. “The right thing to do is help.”
She explained that with Orange Shirt Day becoming a statutory holiday, it will continue to evolve, but for now, she hopes it will ignite conversation and togetherness.
“In 100 years, there’s going to be no survivors left, so it will become a day of remembrance,” she said. “But for now, families can get together, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, and spend the day together,” she said. “It’s a day that was needed.”
Montour believes that along with this new statutory holiday and the current political climate, people are beginning to understand the pain Indigenous families are feeling.
“They are looking at their children and saying, ‘oh my god, how can that happen?’ Now they are actually seeing it for themselves. Now there is proof.”
Tomorrow Thursday, July 1, Webstad will be Zooming with prime minister Justin Trudeau. “I’m going to show him a picture of my family. I’m going to tell him for the first time in four generations in my family, my grandchildren are being raised under the same roof as their mother and their father. Granny didn’t have that, mum didn’t have that, I didn’t have that and my son didn’t have that,” she said through tears.
“They didn’t win. We’re still here.”