by Jessica Dropkin
On September 21, 2021, Phyllis Jack Webstad, the author of The Orange Shirt Story, held an event with her aunt, Agness Jack, hosted by the owner of Medicine Wheel Education’s (MWE) Teddy Anderson to talk about her new book Beyond The Orange Shirt Story. Medicine Wheel Education is the publisher of many Indigenous authors including Phyllis’s first book, The Orange Shirt Story.
Medicine Wheel Education publishes culturally authentic Indigenous books, resources, and tools specialized for moral and cultural education. Each book teaches a positive moral message designed to invite all ages to engage with and learn how to participate in their cultural practices with authenticity and respect. Medicine Wheel Education has books in thousands of locations across Canada and the United States. In each of their books, every word and image has the explicit approval of the Indigenous storytellers and Elders connected to the story. MWE and The Orange Shirt Society aided Phyllis in publishing her stories about her and her own family's experiences while attending residential schools in Canada.
Phyllis Jack Webstad and Agness Jack are Northern Secwpemc (Shuswap) from the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation (Canoe Creek Indian Band). Phyllis’s books are her way of sharing as well as honoring her and her family’s experiences in residential schools with the public.
In The Orange Shirt Story, she tells us how her grandmother, who was a first generation residential school survivor, went with her to purchase a new shirt for her for her first day of school. She was 6 years old in 1973 when she was set to attend St Joseph Mission, which to most was known as simply The Mission, located 20 miles SW from Williams Lake. Phyllis was just a child who was excited to go to school because she was finally old enough to attend, and this was what she knew she wanted to do. Her grandmother picked out a beautiful orange shirt with laces on it. Phyllis was proud to wear this shirt and couldn’t wait to get to school. Upon arriving at the school, the nuns, priests and staff forced the children to be stripped of the clothing they were wearing. “When my orange shirt was taken, that’s when I began to feel like I didn’t matter,” Phyllis said of that day. Now, Phyllis has come out with her 2nd book, Beyond The Orange Shirt Story, which is focused on her entire family’s experiences as residential school survivors. Featured in this book are stories with respective chapters for each person from her great grandmother Suzanne Edward Jim, grandmother Lena Jack (who was the first to attend residential school from 1925 to 1935), mother Rose Wilson, aunt Theresa and Agness Jack, son Jeremy Boston, grandchildren Blake and Mason Murphy, and Lynn, who was Phyllis’s teacher at the school.
Phyllis describes the constant atmosphere at this school as “a lot of crying, hunger, and pee your pants terror”. Upon arrival at the school, her hair was cut, her clothes were swapped for dull colored, stiff clothing and the boys and girls were separated.
Agness, Phyllis’s aunt, was also only 6 years old when she was taken to residential school in 1956. Her mother’s 10 children attended residential school. She was put into a truck with no windows to be transported to the school for her first day with other children. She was afraid, and thought that she was in trouble and being taken to prison. She was unaware that a prison like facility was indeed what she was essentially being brought to, rather than a school. There were 150 boys and 150 girls when she attended. There wasn’t a kindergarten class for kids her age, only grades called 1A and 1B. Agness was sent to a Tuberculosis hospital via The Mission and they never informed her mother. This was not unusual, as these nuns and priests had complete control over the communication to and from the children’s parents. It was very much like a prison, but instead of correction officers, it was the nuns and priests who would censor and edit the childrens’, and parents' letters coming in and out. There were letters Agness would write to her mother asking her questions and when she’d receive what she thought was her mothers letter, none of her questions were answered. This is how she knew that her mother was not reading any of her letters. Agness says that one of the things that helped them cope with their reality was having access to record players. They would be able to play music and dance once a month with a student-led band which reminded them of home, and their family’s traditional songs and dances.
St Joseph Mission had 40 to 50 kids assigned to a single dormitory room. The food was described as barely edible. There were mashed potatoes but they referred to it as ‘slop’. The nuns and priests would have a table with fresh food, fruit and vegetables and ate better than the kids they were supposed to be caring for. The disciplinary action against these children was deplorable. They would get disciplined in many ways for anything ranging from speaking in their own language rather than english or talking about their culture. There are multiple accounts of being abused with two foot long straps over a table. The nuns and priests would strap them in places where it either wouldn’t bruise or the marks left wouldn’t be visible with clothing on. Agness states that group punishment was better than individual punishment because they would all have to endure it together, rather than a single child having to face the punishment alone. The children would get into fights and they would all watch and let them happen, instead of trying to intervene and stop them. This way everyone got in trouble. They were always lectured on how they “should know better”. They have distinct memories of being forced to stand or kneel in corners for extended periods of time. They were forced to kneel in front of the bedroom doors of the priests and nuns, who would not let them sleep until their knees hurt. There were girls who ran away and shaved their heads in hopes of not being recognized. Unfortunately, they were brought back and intentionally humiliated by not being allowed to wear any scarves over their shaven heads. These children were not allowed to go home except for Christmas and the summer, however it varied for each person and generation.
Phyllis states that the impact of residential schools on her family affected their culture and contributed to a loss of their language and traditions. She claims it made an impact that carried over to the current educational system and that the gold rush period brought the smallpox epidemic to the Shuweten people.
Phyllis said that her grandmother Lena, who lived to be 100 years old (1918 - 2019), is always in her heart. She will make sure future generations know about her life story. Phyllis is doing this not only for herself and other survivors, but to honor her ancestors.
The way Phyllis and Agness have coped with this trauma is by going back to their reservation for healing. Agness says that teaching their youth about their culture, language and traditions helps heal the intergenerational traumas.
This year is the first year that Orange Shirt Day is recognized as a National Holiday in Canada, and it is gaining recognition in the U.S. as well because of the impacts of residential school systems on their own Indigenous peoples. Phyllis says that when she sees people wearing orange, it shows her that they care. September 30th is Orange Shirt Day and a day of honoring all the children living and in spirit. All are welcome to wear an orange shirt to spread awareness about residential schools and initiatives to bring their children back home.
Indian Residential School Survivors Society (IRSSS) began in 1994 to assist survivors of these systemic abuses. IRSSS provides essential services to Residential School Survivors, their families, and those dealing with Intergenerational traumas. They have compiled a call-to-action for the Canadian government that you can find here: https://www.irsss.ca/downloads/trc-calls-to-action.pdf
Support is available for anyone affected by the lingering effects of residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports. The Indian Residential School Survivors Society can be contacted toll-free at 1-800-721-0066.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. Access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.
Within B.C., the KUU-US Crisis Line Society provides a First Nations and Indigenous-specific crisis line available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It's toll free and can be reached at 1-800-588-8717 or online at kuu-uscrisisline.com.
Indigenous Sovereignty, Rights and Justice | MMIW Awareness
Residential School Data (We update this whenever more information comes out.)
Beyond The Orange Shirt Story Event Video (rewatchable)
About Medicine Wheel Education
Orange Shirt Day
Orange Shirt Society
The Orange Shirt Story by Phyllis Webstad
Beyond The Orange Shirt Story by Phyllis Webstad