Phyllis Webstad, an Indian Residential School Survivor, lives in a self-described “shack” in Wildwood, a community in northern British Columbia.
“But it’s my shack. If I sold everything I owned, to pay everyone I owe, I would be at zero,” she says.
And yet, her life is beginning to change. On Canada Day, she received a personal phone call from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. They spoke for 23 minutes.
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Her husband jokes: “My wife is an example of how you can be famous but not rich.”
Webstad is the founder of the Orange Shirt Society, a national nonprofit dedicated to supporting Indian Residential School Reconciliation. She is also the author of four books, with her latest released earlier this year entitled, “Beyond the Orange Shirt Story”. On September 30th, Orange Shirt Day encourages people across the country to wear Orange to remember perhaps the greatest atrocity and injustice in Canadian history – a network of mandatory boarding schools for Indigenous peoples, designed to subjugate and assimilate generations of children.
Thousands of Residential School survivors, like Webstad, continue to suffer from the trauma of this system, which operated in Canada from 1896 until the last school closed in Saskatchewan in 1996. Meanwhile, it is estimated thousands of children never made it home.
This statistic came into sharp focus in May of this year, when the bodies of 215 children were confirmed on the site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School in Kamloops, BC. The confirmations set off an avalanche of sadness, anger and introspection across Canada, as hundreds of other unmarked graves continue to be found throughout the country.
But it was also a tipping point for the Orange Shirt Society.
“It has been absolutely crazy,” Laio Hyrcha explains, the Society’s new executive director.
“Back six months ago, the society was doing its thing. Phyllis was trying to get awareness out there, and they were worried if the society would even be sustainable in the future. And then 215 happened. The society blew up overnight. Hence the reason I came on, and since then we’ve hired two more people. It has been like drinking from a firehose. It is the only way to describe it.”
The Orange Shirt Society is not alone.
Since the confirmations on May 27th, Canadians of all backgrounds are recognizing more than ever the country’s grim history with Indian Residential Schools. This awakening has fueled a surge of interest in Indigenous and Indigenous-led causes. Many citizens are left wondering: how can I help?
For those that have never given, it begs other important questions.
Where can I make a meaningful impact? What are the right questions to ask? And, as the national headlines shift, how can we create meaningful, sustainable change?
For the Orange Shirt Society, the focus has been building a foundation.
When the pandemic hit, in March 2020, “we had enough money to get us through the end of the fiscal year, but that was it,” according to Joan Sorley, Treasurer for the Society.
“We didn’t know where our next meal was coming from, so to speak,” she adds.
Founded in 2013, and incorporated as a nonprofit in 2015, the Orange Shirt Society scraped by through donations generated by Webstad’s speaking engagements and modest shirt sales from their website. Today, donations big and small continue to pour in for the Society. Shirt sales have exploded, with retailers, such as Walmart, offering a means to purchase them in stores across Canada. And the phones keep ringing. The staff field phone calls from the likes of Amazon and Tim Horton’s, all seeking ways to partner with the organization.
One of the more exciting partnerships, Hyrcha says, is the Orange Jersey Program with Canadian Tire. While still in its infancy, the idea is to provide hockey coaches with information and orange jerseys to help educate, inform and inspire youth throughout Canada.
“When we target our youth, and we use sport for education, we are going to change the world,” she believes.
The society is also in the process of setting up a separate foundation focused on education, allowing them to accept donations from other foundations and offer tax receipts to donors. Hyrcha says the foundation will primarily focus on youth and education, so future generations will know and understand the history and impact of Indian Residential Schools.
“Orange Shirt Day has been divinely guided,” Webstad explains.
“There is something else in charge here and I call it the ancestors. So they are the ones making this happen. Because if I had written a business plan and called it Orange Shirt Day, it wouldn’t be what it is today. It would have fallen short. Now, it has a life of its own.”
And yet, tremendous challenges remain.
Although the growth of organizations like Orange Shirt Society is encouraging, it is certainly not the whole picture.
Kris Archie, CEO of The Circle on Philanthropy and Aboriginal Peoples in Canada, or The Circle, agrees that there is a rise in interest to support Indigenous issues and causes. However, actual dollars rarely make it directly into the hands of Indigenous-led or informed organizations.
Measuring the Circle, a study completed in both 2014 and 2017, found that less than 1% of philanthropic dollars go towards Indigenous-led organizations.
“We are working against broad stereotypes that issues related to Indigenous Peoples are not the problems of Canadians,” Archie explains, who joined the organization in July 2017.
“The thinking has been: Indigenous Issues are their issues, or the responsibility with them lays with federal government. So I think it is not just about the settler philanthropic sector catching up. I think it is also the Canadian narrative about Indigenous Peoples in this country is rife with stereotypes about Indigenous People always asking for another handout.”
The Circle, as the name implies, includes an intimate collection of members that seek to break down these stereotypes, while promoting more giving and bridge building with Indigenous-led and informed groups . The organization offers learning, training and workshops for a broad range of members, from the Toronto Foundation, to Home Depot Canada, to Petsmart. The second audience is Indigenous-led and informed organizations.
“A unique feature of The Circle is they [Indigenous-led and informed causes] provide us with a lot of guidance on how they want to relate with settler philanthropic institutions and our work is to facilitate those relationships,” she explains.
Although listening is important, Archie isn’t interested in commissioning more studies to confirm what her organization knows – Indigenous-led and informed organizations desperately need funding.
Support them, she says, and get out of the way. Archie believes too much weight is often placed on the need to understand Indigenous issues and causes. In the other words, the time for action is now.
“I think there is an undeniable reckoning that is required by Canadians,” she adds.
“That reckoning invites people to think about how they themselves have been complicit in harm and how they might want to do something about it.”
A new initiative, which helps everyday Canadians get involved, is One Day’s Pay – a program that allows you to donate your salary or earnings every September 30th to Indigenous-led and informed organizations. Rather than consider it a statutory holiday, where we receive a day off with pay, The Circle wishes to offer a more progressive solution. Archie says they will highlight particular organizations to consider for donations, while also giving people resources to do their own research.
Archie also recommends taking the time to understand whose land and territory you are on.
Next, think local: consider supporting your local Friendship Centre, for example, with 125 of them spread out among urban communities across the country. Research other local, Indigenous-led or informed organizations in your area, such as the Ontario Indigenous Youth Partnerships Program, where all the grant decision making and programming is done by Indigenous youth.
“The balance is to do your listening on your own,” she says. “And then act. And you don’t need to do all the learning in the world to act. There are undeniable issues and causes that need to be supported. You don’t need to know every piece of data and research to understand that not having drinking water is a problem. You don’t need to know how many more children’s bodies are going to be discovered beside Indian residential school to recognize that is harmful.”
The Joyce Family Foundation, together with Carleton University, is one local partnership that has committed to action today.
In September, after extensive consultation with Carleton University and local Indigenous leaders, the Joyce Family Foundation announced a $2.5 million endowment to support bursaries for Indigenous students. Some of the bursaries will be set aside for Algonquin students from Kitigan Zibi Anishnabeg and AlgonQuins of Pikwakanagan First Nation – two Indigenous communities within whose territoty Carleton is situated.
The gift is being matched by Carleton to support other Indigenous initiatives, bringing the total campaign to $5 million.
“This is why we liked Carleton: they matched the gift with their own endowment. The funds of that endowment will go towards supports that have been proven to help Indigenous students,” Maureen O’Neill says, the Executive Director of the foundation.
This latest gift from The Joyce Family Foundation is one in a string of commitments to assist Indigenous students.
In August 2017, the foundation made a $1 million donation to Lakehead University to assist with their Aboriginal Mentorship Program. Today, thousands of youth, from grades 1 to 12, have worked with Lakehead via an outreach program both on and off campus in the areas of chemistry, biology, nursing, archeology, and other disciplines.
Also in 2017, The Joyce Family Foundation made a $500,000 donation to the University of Victoria to assist with new bursaries for Indigenous students.
Meanwhile, another $1 million in bursaries Indigenous students, at another Canadian university, will soon be announced, O’Neill adds.
Although the foundation is by no means solely focused on Indigenous causes, O’Neill says these commitments demonstrate their desire to respond to a clear need.
“I think it is a good indicator that universities and colleges are building strategies that will support and attract Indigenous learners,” she adds.
Benoit-Antoine Bacon, the President of Carleton, called the donation an “important milestone” for the university, while noting “there is still a lot of work to do.”
For Archie at The Circle, this work never stops. Although the success of the Orange Shirt Society, Carleton and other institutions is a step in the right direction, the events of May 2021 must not be forgotten. To create genuine, sustainable change, we must all continue to feel a sense of responsibility.
Traditionally, donors and institutions don’t see themselves as having a role to play in Indigenous causes, Archie explains, simply because we tend to feel disassociated with them, or feel it is mostly the work of government.
To get truly make a difference, responsibility must be felt by all Canadians.
“What we know to be true, is Indigenous issues are not being prioritized,” she says. “So now more than ever, we need organizations to be abundantly funded and supported to do their good work.”