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The Orange Shirt Story book cover depicts six-year-old Phyllis Webstad in her new orange shirt on her first day at residential school. (Medicine Wheel Education) The story of a bright orange shirt is helping Manitoba schoolchildren understand a dark past in Canada.

What happened to Phyllis Webstad back in 1973 has led to the Orange Shirt Day movement, which focuses on recognizing the harm done by Canada’s residential school system.

It also inspired Winnipeg teacher Sean Oliver to help create curriculum about it and the history of Indigenous Peoples in Canada that is now used across the province.

"Teaching this history is absolutely critical," said Oliver, a Grade 9 teacher at Glenlawn Collegiate.

"The legacy of residential schools, I do think, impacts all Canadians, and so I felt personally responsible as a public educator to bring this issue into the light as best as I can."

It was education fed to Indigenous children in those schools that aided in assimilation and colonialism, so it is education that can make things better, he said.

"Education can and should be the vehicle by which students are engaged in the topic and made aware of what happened and the effects on Indigenous peoples and communities," he said.

Webstad’s story provides the opening for that discussion about reconciliation, Oliver said.

In 1973, Webstad was a six-year-old girl who was taken from her home reserve to attend St. Joseph’s Residential School in Williams Lake, B.C., 80 kilometres away. There are many variations of the orange shirt. (Shana Dion) In the days before school started, her grandmother saved money to buy Webstad a new outfit. The excited girl picked out an orange shirt that had a string lace-up front.

On her first day of school, the shirt was stripped off of her and she was given a uniform. Webstad never saw it again.

"The colour 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," she is quoted as saying on the Orange Shirt Day website.

That treatment led her down a path that saw her become a mother at 13 and seek treatment for her feelings of worthlessness and insignificance at age 27.

She has continued that healing journey and in 2013, she shared her story "so that others may benefit and understand, and maybe other survivors will feel comfortable enough to share their stories."

Her story launched Orange Shirt Day that same year. It is now held annually, with people encouraged to wear the colour as a promise to do better.

"The fact that Orange Shirt Day is in September is very purposeful. That way we can have students thinking about ‘What was your first day of school like?’" said Oliver. Phyllis Webstad was six years old in 1973 when she was put in a residential school in British Columbia and stripped of her brand new orange shirt. (orangeshirtday.org) He encourages students to think back to a time when they were attending kindergarten or Grade 1 and how excited they were, what their expectations might have been.

Then he contrasts it with Webstad’s experience."It’s in most ways very similar to the thoughts all young people have when going to school for the first time," he said. "But in this case, this school takes away everything that you love and everything about you."To hear it in that context helps them make personal connections, Oliver said."And I think they’re able to understand the issues on a deeper level when we can do that. It teaches the heart as well as the brain."Depending on […]

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