By Phyllis Webstad
I’m a third-generation Indian residential school survivor. My grandmother attended from 1925 to 1935; my mother from 1954 to 1964; and myself for one year (1973). We all attended the St. Joseph Indian Residential School, aka The Mission, near Williams Lake.
I turned six, the age for school, in July 1973. Granny did what she had always done when a child turned six: she got them ready to go to The Mission. I was no exception.
I chose an orange shirt to wear on my first day of school. That shirt was bright and exciting, just like how it felt to be going to school for the first time! When I arrived at The Mission, my shirt was taken. I never wore it again.
I felt like I did not matter at The Mission. I could be hungry, cold, lonely, or sick, and there was no adult to give comfort or help. Five- and six-year-olds should not be comforting each other.
I learned to disassociate. I could feel my spirit leave my body, and I went where there were good memories: home to Granny in Dog Creek. At six years old, I learned that my life depended on me. That I was alone in the world.
The survivors who were children when they were at these so-called schools—they matter. The children who never made it home—they matter. And the children alive today—they matter. Every child matters, no matter what colour they are on the medicine wheel. Every child matters in the past, the present, and the future.
Life can be understood backwards, but must be lived forwards. I started learning my Secwepemc history in 2004. I’ve learned how the miners along the Fraser River looking for gold brought with them smallpox, which wiped out 92 per cent of our people. Before this, we had our own ways of being, our own laws, our own judicial and medical system. We were thrust into survival mode.
Then we were put onto reserves—refugee camps, I call them. My great-grandmother was born in 1880, and the Indian Act was born in 1876; she never knew life without it. My grandmother grew up being bossed around by an Indian Agent, usually an older white male. She had to get a pass to go visit relatives, to hunt or berry pick or go fishing at the Fraser River. She was oppressed. This is when the lateral violence started—Indigenous people couldn’t go after the Indian Agents or the government, so they went after each other.
Then we were put into residential schools. My great-grandmother brought my grandmother to The Mission voluntarily on the back of a horse in 1925. She wanted her youngest child to learn to read and write so that maybe she could help her come out from under the oppression.
Today, in 2023, we still feel on a daily basis the impacts of these so-called schools. Every day we live with the effects this history has had on intergenerational survivors. Truth and reconciliation needs to happen within families and within communities, as well as Canada as a whole.
I wanted to write the children’s book, Every Child Matters (out August 8 with Medicine Wheel Publishing), to tell the story of Indigenous resiliency. The Canadian government did not and will not win—we are still here and we aren’t going anywhere! They were not successful in getting rid of us; in fact, we are gaining strength and momentum. We are reclaiming ourselves.
My son and his wife are the first in five generations to be raising their own children, and I am so proud of them! If this is happening all across Canada, I look forward to witnessing the difference this will make in our society. I know having my grandchildren raised by their own parents will make a world of difference in our family and the generations to come. They will not have a childhood they need to heal from.