Students and staff at Summerhill Elementary School in Oromocto were captivated by the heart wrenching story of Phyllis (Jack) Wedstad, a Canadian residential school survivor and executive director of the Orange Shirt Society, who spoke at a school assembly on Jan. 22.
It was Wedstad's story from her childhood that inspired Orange Shirt Day, the writing of her two children's books, and now her national tour, funded by Heritage Canada, to spread the message that "Every Child Matters."
"My story is not unique," Wedstad said. "It is the story of residential school survivors across Canada."
Wedstad was six-years-old and living with her grandmother at the Dog Creek Reserve along the Fraser River in British Columbia when she left home on a two-hour drive to attend the St. Joseph Mission Indian Residential School in 1973-74. She was excited to being going to school and wearing her new orange shirt, a gift from her grandmother. But fear and trepidation set in as soon as she arrived at the door.
"When I got to the Mission, they stripped me, cut my hair and took away my clothes, including the orange shirt! I never wore it again," Wedstad explained. "I didn’t understand why they wouldn’t give it back to me, it was mine! The color orange has always reminded me of that and how my feelings didn’t matter, how no one cared and how I felt like I was worth nothing. All of us little children were crying and no one cared. We were taken from our homes. We did not have a choice but to go to residential school. We called it going to the Mission. If you were a flight risk, you were sent to another school farther from home."
Wedstad said deep loneliness overcame her at the school and she often cried herself to sleep at night in the stark dormitory she shared with other girls. There was no one to console or comfort them. The food was tasteless and colorless. Clothing was communal and assigned. Students had nothing of their own and no choice of what to wear from day to day. Boys and girls were separated inside and outside at residential school. When they were bused to a public school at Williams Lake for their classes, it was their only time to enjoy being together as First Nations youth.
"We learned to read and write, but were lonely because we had been taken away from our families," she said. "Orange Shirt Day for me and others is a little bit of justice for what we went through at residential school. Unfortunately, some children did die at these schools. We must honour the survivors as well as those who did not make it."
Wedstad said her one year at residential school seemed like an eternity and she was glad to return home to her grandmother "where people cared about me and where I mattered." There may not have been electricity or running water, but it was home and a safe and welcoming place.
The St. Joseph Mission Indian Residential School operated from 1891-1981. Wedstad's grandchildren are the first in four generations of her family to be able to live at home with their parents. Her mother, brother and grandmother were also residential school survivors from St. Joseph Mission.
Residential schools were created by Christian churches and the Canadian government as an attempt to both educate and convert Indigenous youth and to integrate them into Canadian society. However, the schools disrupted lives and communities, causing long-term problems among Indigenous peoples.
September 30 was chosen as the date to commemorate all the children who attended residential schools as it was also the time of year that children had to leave their homes and communities to attend the schools. This annual campaign began in 2013 after Webstad shared her experience at a reunion with other survivors as part of Truth and Reconciliation. She received an award in 2017 for the impact of her message internationally.
"We know why we are here and why this is so important for our school," Principal Shannon Atherton said at the school assembly with Wedstad. "We've been honoured to be a part of this tour. We are going to keep learning about this and remember what happened (to First Nations children) so that it never happens again."
Drummers and dancers from Ridgeview Middle School in Oromocto performed during the visit at Summmerhill Elementary School where Elder Charles Sewell from Oromocto First Nation offered opening prayer and sang a safe journey song for Wedstad upon her departure. She also visited Cambridge Narrows Community School and Chief Harold Sappier Memorial School at St. Mary's First Nation in Fredericton.
Shown in the photos below are (1) Elder Charles Sewell from Oromocto First Nation with Phyllis Wedstad; (2) Dancers from Ridgeview Middle School performing at the school assembly; (3) Students at Summerhill Elementary School getting ready to hear Wedstad's story about residential schools.