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‘In awe’: National Day for Truth and Reconciliation huge for Orange Shirt Day founders

Phyllis Webstad and Joan Sorley started the movement leading to national holiday in 2013
Orange Shirt Day founders Joan Sorley and Phyllis Webstad took part in a vigil on Canada Day in Williams Lake at Herb Gardner Park. Their work inspired the first-ever National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. (Angie Mindus file photo)

As Canada marks its first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on Sept. 30, it is also marking an important milestone for a pair of B.C. women.

Orange Shirt Society founders Phyllis Webstad, a Northern Secwépec from the Cariboo’s Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation, and Joan Sorley, a former Cariboo Regional District director, have been working to make this moment happen for years.

In April 2013, Webstad told the story which inspired the first Orange Shirt Day later that year. With the encouragement of her friend Joan Sorley, she recalled how her grandmother bought her an orange shiny shirt that was taken away when she arrived for her first day at St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School near Williams Lake at the age of six. See more here.

Fast forward to 2021 and Webstad is busy with speaking engagements.

“I’m in awe,” she said early Tuesday from Vancouver, where she had been up since 4 a.m. doing media interviews. “It has been amazing and all happening so fast. Not that it was not overwhelming in previous years, but this year even more so. Every day is busy and I have more requests coming in than I can handle.”

When asked what she will be thinking of when she wakes up on Thursday, Sept. 30, she chuckled and replied, “coffee.”

Sorley said she is awestruck the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is happening.

“I am the political nerd,” she said. “I was so star struck to be in the parliament buildings when parliament was in session and when they passed the bill. Who could ever think, this little welfare kid from Mission would one day go to parliament and be influential in making it a statutory holiday.”

She said it’s not just Webstad and herself, but the Orange Shirt Society working as a team.

“We are really excited.”

Last week the book Orange Shirt Day Sept. 30 written by Webstad and Sorley received the Periodical Marketers of Canada Indigenous Literature Award by the First Nations Communities READ after it was chosen by a jury of Indigenous librarians from across Ontario.

The award comes with a $5,000 prize.

Sometimes the truth is brutal and raw, wrote Webstad in the introduction of her latest book, Beyond the Orange Shirt Story.

“Everything that is written about in this book is still happening today to many,” she wrote. “I continue to pray and hope that we can continue to heal the wounds of the past. It’s hard being immersed in this history on a daily basis and even more so in writing of this book.”

Earlier in September the book was released. It features a collection of stories from family and friends of Webstad before, during and after their residential school experiences.

On Sept. 30, the Orange Shirt Society will be releasing a special video on the Orange Shirt Society YouTube channel.

In Williams Lake the day will also be marked with a gathering at the former St. Joseph’s Mission led by the Williams Lake First Nations at 1 p.m. To honour the day, the City of Williams Lake noted facilities and operations will be closed.

Read More: Webstad documentary Returning Home premieres at UBC

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Monica Lamb-Yorski

About the Author: Monica Lamb-Yorski

A B.C. gal, I was born in Alert Bay, raised in Nelson, graduated from the University of Winnipeg, and wrote my first-ever article for the Prince Rupert Daily News.
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