Survivor stories


A woman wearing and traditional Indigenous costume

In recognition of the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, we present two stories from residential school Survivors. They are real and emotional, shared to honour Survivors, the children who never came home from Residential Schools, and all the families and communities who were, and continue to be, affected.

Alongside all Canadians, we reflect on the history, legacy and impact of Residential Schools and the steps we must all take to repair the damage done.


 

Phyllis Webstad

Phyllis Webstad 

At the age of six, Phyllis Webstad was ready to go to school, so her grandmother took her into town to buy a new set of clothes. Encouraged to choose something that she liked, Phyllis picked out a bright orange shirt. Filled with excitement when the first day of classes rolled around in September, she proudly wore the shirt to the St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School in Williams Lake, British Columbia. She never wore it again.

The school took away the clothes the children were wearing and replaced them with donated clothing. Phyllis lost her beloved shirt. And while she didn’t know it at the time, the school would also take away much more: her sense of self-worth, her dignity, and the loving embrace of her family. At the school, no one made an effort to nurture the children or create an environment that would remind them of the homes they had left, where they had been raised by parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles who made them feel that they mattered. Phyllis endured emotional deprivation and psychological abuse, and the effects remained with her into adulthood.

What also remained was the memory of the orange shirt. When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission came to British Columbia, Phyllis was asked to speak about her experiences. Unsure of what to say, she chose to tell the story of her shirt. For her, its loss had come to symbolize the loss of everything that had sustained her as a child and made her feel valued. The story and symbolism of the orange shirt resonated, inspiring children and families across the country to honour the stories and experiences of Survivors by wearing orange on September 30 each year.

 

Elder Barney Williams, Jr.

Elder Barney Williams, Jr.

Barney Williams is a member of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation on Vancouver Island and a social worker who has dedicated his life to supporting the health and well-being of Indigenous people. He spent his earliest years in a loving home, marked by the lessons he received from his grandparents. “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of Granny and Grandpa and the wonderful way that they raised us and loved us,” he says. “Granny taught me about humility and integrity, about being proud of my culture and who I am, and never trying to be someone I’m not.” But when he was five years old, his life changed. He was sent to a Residential School.

He arrived at the school speaking no English, and as a result he was subjected to physical punishment, such as strappings and beatings. At times he was made to walk around with a wooden block in his mouth for eight hours a day, unable to drink or eat. His humiliation was compounded by sexual and emotional abuse. The suffering was accompanied by a clear message from the school and its teachers, repeated over and over: you will never amount to anything.

Eight years of this psychological and physical abuse took an inevitable toll. “When I arrived, I believed in myself and my culture. When I left, I had lost everything—my pride, my self-esteem, my sense of who I was.” It took years of torment and struggle with addiction for Barney to overcome the nightmares that governed his life. But he ultimately succeeded, finding his way back to his culture, the lessons of his early childhood, and his sense of self. As a therapist, he has applied the wisdom and insight he took from his own trauma to help others. And while his life is a testament to hope, it is also a reminder not to forget.

 


 

Residential schools

Watch the following 3-minute introductory video about the impacts of the Residential Schools, Indian Day Schools and the Sixties Scoop which, often forcibly, removed hundreds of thousands of Indigenous children from their families and communities and impacted generations to come.

 

Impacts of the Indian Act
Watch the following 3-minute video on the impacts of the Indian Act in Canada.

 



Truth and Reconciliation

Reflect on the history, legacy and impact of Residential Schools and the Calls to Action we must all take to repair the damage done

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