Since 2013, Phyllis Webstad has shared the story of her orange shirt on Sept. 30 as part of Orange Shirt Day, which recognizes the harm residential schools did to Indigenous children in Canada.
But this year, the day lands on a Sunday and will be at the end of a month-long tour spent promoting her new book, The Orange Shirt Story — so Webstad said she’ll be at home doing laundry.
The book tells the story of when she was six years old and sent to St. Joseph Mission residential school in Williams Lake, where she spent a year — or as she tells kids, 300 sleeps — in 1973-1974.
“It’s the story of being there, what it felt like and what happened, and eventually returning to home on the reserve,” she said.
Webstad’s history with residential schools is a multi-generational one. Not only did she attend a residential school, her grandmother and mother each attended for 10 years, as well as each of her grandmother’s 10 children, who attended at some point.
Webstad said her goal with the children’s book is to convey empathy to its readers and to provide some history of Canada.
“It’s not just First Nation history. It’s Canadian history,” she said.
Her experience at the school invoked “peeing-your-pants terror” she said, and she remembers the feeling of her realization that, as a six-year-old, she wouldn’t get to go home.
Although she didn’t experience the sexual abuse others did at residential school, she encountered it later at age 11 by someone who had attended.
“Orange Shirt Day is a conversation starter,” she told KTW. “There’s always a place and time for those kinds of conversations.”
Webstad said she hopes the book ends up in classrooms, from Kindergarten to Grade 12, across the country — although its recommended ages are for those in Grade 2 and up.
To make the book happen, Webstad initially pitched her story to publishers but only had an outline and mock-up of the illustrations.
Most publishers shied away because they wanted a manuscript, but Webstad said one even tried to steer her away from the topic of residential schools altogether.
“One publisher that I was seriously considering even told me that the residential school was an adult topic that I need not be traumatizing children with, and that I should consider writing it from the viewpoint of a child scared to go to camp,” she said.
“That ended that conversation. There was no way I was going to do that.”
But when she was finally connected with Teddy Anderson, things started to come together.
Anderson is the founder of Medicine Wheel Education, a publishing company that has helped other Indigenous authors turn oral stories into written ones.
Webstad said Anderson’s pitch to help out sounded ideal, but it was too expensive. Anderson said he didn’t want any money.
“He understood completely what I needed,” she said.
Webstad worked with Anderson and the team of editors and illustrators he helped assemble to come up with the script and illustrations for the book.
The Orange Shirt Story also contains a primer on residential schools and the history of the Secwepemc.
“That was important to me. Orange Shirt Day has gone to other countries and for someone who doesn’t know anything about where Shuswap territory is, or anything about residential schools, they have a starting point,” she said.
On Tuesday, Webstad will be at Moccasin Square Garden, 315 Southern Yellowhead Hwy, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. for a book signing and launch event.
French and Shuswap language translations of the book will also be available.