Author Tags: Aboriginal Authors, Education, First Nations
Bev Sellars won the 2014 George Ryga Award for Social Awareness for her book They Called Me Number One: Secrets and Survival at an Indian Residential School (Talonbooks 2013). Forty weeks on the BCBestseller List, it was also shortlisted for the Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize and received a third prize citation for the 2014 Burt Award for First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Literature.
At age five, Bev Sellars was isolated for two years at the Coqualeetza Indian Turberculosis Hospital in Sardis, British Columbia, nearly six hours’ drive from home. She later endured far-worse isolation from her family for ten months each year in the notorious St. Joseph's Residential School in Williams Lake where both her grandmother and mother had been incarcerated before her. Sellars was forced to attend the Catholic-run school in the 1960s when the principal was Hubert O'Connor. As Bishop O'Connor, he was convicted in 1996 of committing rape and indecent assault on two young aboriginal women during his time as a priest at St. Joseph's.
They Called Me Number One describes St. Joseph's and O'Connor, as well as the hunger, forced labour and beatings with a leather strap that were common in the school. Her lifelong path towards healing has culminated in the first book to be written by someone who survived St. Joseph's school.
“Soon after we arrived at residential school," she writes, "we were given a number that would become our identity. I became Number 1 on the girls’ side. Although the other kids all continued to call me by name, ‘Bev Sellars’ ceased to exist for most of the nuns, priests and staff. Instead they would say, ‘Number 1, come here’ or ‘I want these girls in my office; Numbers 1, 14, 72 and 105’ or ‘Number 1, say the second decade of the rosary.’
“Ninety or more years after she left St. Joseph’s Mission, my grandmother still remembered her number -- 27 -- and 28 -- the number assigned to her sister, Annie. My mom remembers her number was 71. Thankfully, our numbers were not tattooed on our skin.”
Bev Sellars served for twenty years as chief of the Xat'sull (Soda Creek) First Nation in Williams Lake, British Columbia, first elected as chief in 1987. The former adviser for the B.C. Treaty Commission has a history degree from the University of Victoria and a law degree from the University of British Columbia.
"What is impressive about Bev Sellars," says historian Jean Barman, "is that her book is only the tip of the iceberg that is her life." Barman wrote a prize-winning article that was sparked by watching Bev Sellars in the courtroom inspiring a group of indigenous women to stand tall and be their own persons.
As a follow-up, Sellars has re-told Canada’s history in Price Paid: The Fight for First Nations Survival (Talonbooks $24.95), a wide-ranging and candid effort to “untangle truth from some of the myths about First Nations.” It’s based on a presentation Sellars has often delivered to treaty-makers, politicians, policymakers and educators. Sellers offers glimpses of foods, medicines, and cultural practices that North America’s aboriginal peoples have contributed to the world. The book immediately appeared and stayed on the BC Bestsellers List. In the words of Paul L.A.H. Chartrand, IPC, Professor of Law, retired former commissioner, Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1991–1996), “This is a book like no other. Bev Sellars combines her keen insights, her studies in history and law, and her experience as a chief of an ‘Indian reserve’ in British Columbia to produce a book that will open the eyes of Canadians to the reality of life under federal government administration. This book will be a significant contribution to the nationwide campaign of Indigenous people to emancipate themselves from the Indian Act and its administrators in Ottawa.” 978-0-88922-972-3
Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
They Called Me Number One: Secrets and Survival at an Indian Residential School
They Called Me Number One: Secrets and Survival at an Indian Residential School (Talonbooks 2013) $19.95 978-0-88922-741-5
Price Paid: The Fight for First Nations Survival (Talonbooks 2016) $24.95 978-0-88922-972-3
They Called Me Number One: Secrets & Survival at an Indian Residential School
from Joan Givner
It wasn’t planned—but the new memoir by Chief Bev Sellars recounting abuse at the St. Joseph’s Residential School has been released coincidentally with the proceedings of the major Truth & Reconciliation hearings and events around the Lower Mainland, September 18-21.
As a follow-up to her review of a biography of First Nations matriarch Jane Cook of Alert Bay, Standing Up with Ga’axsta’las; Jane Constance Cook and the Politics of Memory, Church, and Custom by Leslie A. Robertson and Kwagu’l Gixsam Clan, here Joan Givner examines the life story of Bev Sellars, chief of the Xat’sull (Soda Creek) First Nation in Williams Lake.
They Called Me Number One: Secrets and Survival at an Indian Residential School by Bev Sellars (Talonbooks $19.95)
At age five, Bev Sellars was isolated for two years at the Coqualeetza Indian Turberculosis Hospital in Sardis, British Columbia, nearly six hours’ drive from home. She later endured far worse isolation from her family for ten months each year in the notorious St. Joseph’s Residential School in Williams Lake where both her grandmother and mother had been incarcerated before her.
Sellars was forced to attend the Catholic-run school in the 1960s when the principal was Father Hubert O’Connor. As Bishop O’Connor, he was convicted in 1996 of committing rape and indecent assault on two young aboriginal women during his time as a priest at St. Joseph’s.
Bev Sellars’ memoir They Called Me Number One: Secrets and Survival at an Indian Residential School describes St. Joseph’s and O’Connor, as well as the hunger, forced labour and beatings with a leather strap that were common in the school. Her lifelong path towards healing has culminated in the first book to be written by someone who survived St. Joseph’s school.
“Soon after we arrived at residential school,” she writes, “we were given a number that would become our identity. I became Number 1 on the girls’ side. Although the other kids all continued to call me by name, ‘Bev Sellars’ ceased to exist for most of the nuns, priests and staff. Instead they would say, ‘Number 1, come here’ or ‘I want these girls in my office; Numbers 1, 14, 72 and 105’ or ‘Number 1, say the second decade of the rosary.’
“Ninety or more years after she left St. Joseph’s Mission, my grandmother still remembered her number — 27 — and 28 — the number assigned to her sister, Annie. My mom remembers her number was 71. Thankfully, our numbers were not tattooed on our skin.”
Bev Sellars has been chief of the Xat’sull (Soda Creek) First Nation in Williams Lake, British Columbia since 1987. The former adviser for the B.C. Treaty Commission has a history degree from the University of Victoria and a law degree from the University of British Columbia.
In They Called Me Number One, we learn that children taken from their parents and forced to attend St Joseph’s Mission in the Cariboo, some as young as five years old, were doused with DDT, a carcinogenic pesticide especially dangerous in the pre-puberty years. This spraying with a toxic chemical is an apt metaphor for the poisonous effect of the deprivations, beatings and rapes inflicted on Aboriginal, Inuit and Metis children in residential schools during their formative years.
Chief Bev Sellars bears witness to the atrocities of the residential schools, drawing on her training as a historian and a lawyer, but most of all on the authority of her personal experience. She describes life at the mission from the moment she and others were rounded up by priests, some loaded into cattle trucks, and delivered to their prison.
On arrival, they were identified by numbers rather than names, their language and customs outlawed, all vestiges of racial and personal identity obliterated. These were replaced by indoctrination into the rituals of the Catholic Church. They learned Latin by following the Catholic mass, although the meaning was not explained. They prayed so long and often, kneeling on hard floors, that some sustained permanent damage. Not surprisingly, Sellars eventually lost all respect for organized religion, coming to see it as tool by which men in power exerted control over people.
The frequent bedwetting, symptomatic of the children’s terror, was, like every other infraction except breathing, punishable by flogging with a leather strap cut from a conveyor belt. Since a feature of oppressive regimes is their ability to cause division and enmity among their victims, bullying and ridicule added to the misery. Fights were common.
Sellars notes that “in a world where compassion was almost non-existent, we remembered even the smallest bit of kindness.” The instances of kindness often came from the lay workers employed at the institution. One hero was Pat Joyce, hired as head cook in 1966. Previously the children had watched and smelled good food rolled into the nuns’ and priests’ dining room, while they were served “garbage” that lead to outbreaks of food poisoning. After Joyce insisted on serving the same food to everyone, the children looked forward to mealtimes. The nuns, meanwhile, took the opportunity to preach that “gluttony is a sin.”
When Sellars injured herself in the playroom and was unable to move, the nuns ordered two girls to carry her to the dormitory. Later as she cried out in pain on her way to the bathroom, it was a maintenance man, Bill O’ Donovan, who ran to notify Father O’ Connor, the principal. He summoned an ambulance to take her to the hospital. Long afterwards when O’ Connor, then a bishop, was charged with rape and indecent assault, this same Bill O’ Donovan came forward to testify against him on behalf of the students.
Teachers, employed from outside the order, also provided solace. One kept books in the cloakroom to lend to the students. Another read daily chapters from Rin Tin Tin, The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. A Miss Helen from Vancouver told stories of going to school from home and doing homework in her own room. “It was like reading a book. She took you to a place where good things happened.” Sadly, the good teachers did not stay long.
There were always some brave children who were driven by desperation to run away, risking sadistic punishments when they were caught. Girls had their heads shaved, boys had to wear girls’ dresses and there was the ritual flogging in front of the other students.
The saddest story in the book involves Sellars’ brother, Bobby, who hid away in a cabin to avoid going back to school in September. She remembers watching him brought in after he was captured, his head hung down. In retrospect, she realizes that she was witnessing a broken spirit. He died at the age of eighteen, found in a creek at the bottom of a cliff. Years later, she discovered from reading a study of residential schools, that he had been sexually abused at the mission. Only one of many destroyed lives.
While the main narrative makes a strong personal impact, the notes to each chapter add important legal and historical information. Bev Sellars describes the Commission of Inquiry on the Adequacy of Compensation ($1.6 million) paid to Donald Marshall Jr., the Mi’maq Indian, wrongly accused and jailed for eleven years. Noting its relevance to the compensation paid for nine years of forced imprisonment in a residential school, she quotes Professor H. Archibald Kaiser’s conclusions about the social and psychological effects of such imprisonment:
“The longer this distorting experience of prison goes on, the less likely a person can ever be whole again. Especially for the individual imprisoned as a youth, the chances of eventual happy integration into the community must be very slim.”
The author’s research in the archives of the Department of Indian Affairs also yields some telling facts. A letter from her mother’s time at the institution reveals that the temperature in the dormitory at night was “a few degrees below freezing.” Another from businessmen in Williams Lake complains that in paying their workers, they couldn’t compete with the free labour at the mission, where the children produced vegetables, harnesses and tack. No complaints about the use of child labour apparently.
For an assessment of the long-term effects of trauma, she turns to history, citing a report on the effect of years of bubonic plagues and social disruptions in Medieval Europe. It estimates that social recovery and cultural healing generally start forty years after the traumatic events end. Aboriginal communities had their populations wiped out by imported diseases, they suffered expulsion from their homelands, loss of economic self-sufficiency and the forced abduction and brainwashing of their children. In Sellars’case alone, she is a third generation survivor of St. Joseph’s Mission.
When St. Joseph’s closed in the 1980s, former students descended on the building and reduced it to rubble. If only the destruction of all the lives that took place there could have been wiped out so swiftly. 978-0-88922-741-5
Joan Givner of Mill Bay has a sequel to her YA novel A Girl Called Tennyson forthcoming in 2014.
Bev Sellars: A Profile (2014)
from by Leslie Hill
After winning both the Roderick Haig-Brown Award and the Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Award at the B.C. Book Prizes in May for his biography of architect Arthur Erickson, David Stouck was quick to tell anyone who wanted to listen, “I think Bev Sellars deserved the Evans Award.”
Given that Bev Sellars’ memoir, They Called Me Number One: Secrets and Survival at an Indian Residential School (Talonbooks), had topped the B.C. Bestsellers List longer than any other title in recent memory, Stouck, a retired academic and rare specialist in B.C. literature, was probably not alone in his opinion that Bev Sellers was deserving of the province’s top non-fiction honour, the Hubert Evans Prize. She had already received the George Ryga Award for Social Awareness.
Here, Leslie Hill—herself something of a survivor, of marriage, not residential school—caught up with Bev Sellars in Kamloops and provides this profile.
Bev Sellars, Chief of the Soda Creek Band near Williams Lake, frowns down at the unsteady table where she’s sitting between the library and the Art Gallery in Kamloops. She’s still the right side of sixty, her shoulder-length dark hair curly and free of grey, and her brown eyes smile easily when she’s not worried. She’s here in Kamloops to see her brother, Mike, who is living now in a nursing home.
“Mike can’t walk. He’s had too many injuries after all the years of living on the street and he’s got dementia in the early stages,” she says. “The court sent him to rehab once for thirty days and he looked good when he came out. Healthy. I asked if he’d be off the drink for good. He said he liked waking up without a hangover but sobriety left him thinking too much about the past. He said he’d rather drink than remember. So he wasn’t sober long.”
The memories that haunt him are of his years in St Joseph’s Mission Residential School. At least seven of the Sellars kids, their mother, various aunts and uncles, as well as their grandmother attended the school and suffered physical, mental and emotional abuse. Sellars thinks both Mike and Bobby, the brothers closest to her, were sexually abused too, although they would not talk directly about it.
Bobby tried to run away once and was brought back by the police. “I remember the way Bobby’s head hung as he was walking towards the boys’ side of the building. I felt really bad for him at the time, and now I realize that look was one of a broken spirit. There was nothing he could do to end the sexual abuse, and I have to wonder if, like many others at the school, he was being abused by more than one person.” Bobby died at eighteen, his body found in a creek at the base of a cliff. There was nothing to indicate whether his fall was accident or suicide.
Bev Sellars, recent winner of the George Ryga Award for Social Awareness in Literature
Bev Sellars, recent winner of the George Ryga Award for Social Awareness in Literature
Unlike her siblings, aunts, uncles, mother and grandmother, Sellars has faced her memories and tried to deal with her past. She told her story to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established in 2008 to compile a survivors’ history of Canada’s notorious Indian Residential Schools. She has also written a memoir, They Called Me Number One: Secrets and Survival at an Indian Residential School, an account of the impact of her residential school years. The book won the George Ryga Award for Social Awareness and was shortlisted for a Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize.
Bev Sellars herself credits self-help books and her grandmother for her survival. For years after she had left school, she believed White people were superior to Aboriginal people. “I was emotionally and socially crippled in my ability to deal with the world.” She drank, endured a dysfunctional, abusive marriage and was afraid to leave the reservation. Then one day while waiting for the Laundromat cycle to finish, she picked up a copy of Norman Vincent Peale’s Discovering the Power of Positive Thinking. She was twenty-eight. “Finding that book was like discovering a gold mine … I started to understand myself, and later, to understand the actions of my family… Over the years the bitterness I felt for some of my family melted away.”
When asked she will say she had a wonderful childhood, because she chooses to remember the summers and the Christmas holidays, rather than the months and years she spent at St. Joseph’s Mission. She and Mike and Bobby lived with their grandparents. Her grandmother refused to allow alcohol in the home. If the men wanted to drink, they had to leave and drink elsewhere. So Sellars never experienced firsthand the horrors of a family destroyed by alcoholism when she was young.
But the memories of residential school don’t go away. Alcohol, as Mike discovered, will blur the residual shame, humiliation and pain. When Sellars was fourteen she returned to live with her mother and alcoholic stepfather. During those years she drank, too. “When I left my grandmother’s home physical abuse from other family members started. When they were drinking and their frustrations came out, they vented on those close to them. Sometimes I was closest.”
She dropped out of school at sixteen and spent her time partying. One night as she grabbed a drink, she saw how automatic the action had become. “It was like a slap in the face…While I was reaching for that beer, I experienced an epiphany that would change the way I viewed drinking… No one drank socially in our community at that time. It was blackout bingeing or nothing.”
Her marriage at seventeen offered more pain than happiness almost from the start, but she stayed for fifteen years. Why so long? “The violence began with the years I spent at the Mission. Physical abuse became an accepted way of life for me. The nuns and some of the other kids contributed to it. This prepared me to step right into an abusive relationship with my husband.”
Violence, she says, is an expression of the hopelessness Aboriginal people feel because of the destruction of their culture through the Residential School system. “Suicides were sometimes ‘the answer’ when things got too tough.” She survived her own suicide attempt at seventeen. “Now when I look back I see that I felt an extreme sadness in my soul … I was mentally ill because my experiences to that point had been so negative.”
Most non-Aboriginal Canadians knew nothing of residential schools. Public schools didn’t teach this chapter of Canadian history and the Anglican, Catholic, Presbyterian and United Churches stayed quiet about their role. For more than one hundred years the federal government had coerced parents into co-operation by taking their children away for ten months of the year while the Church-run schools tried to “kill the Indian in the child.” Starvation, disease, physical, emotional and sexual abuses were rampant in the schools. Then in the 1990s the First Nations’ lawsuits against the government and churches that ran the schools gave birth to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Canadians got an educational update.
Eventually Sellars went back to school, obtained a law degree and was elected chief of her Soda Creek Band in the early 1990s. A University of Guelph study encouraged the Aboriginal communities in the Williams Lake district to look at the roots of their social problems. Everything pointed back to the residential school experiences. Almost no one wanted to revisit their school years but under pressure Sellars began to make notes of her memories. It was the genesis of They Called Me Number One and a big part of her own healing.
“I cried; I cried, cried, cried thinking of my family and the pain they must have lived with all their lives. It really affected me. When I started understanding myself I could look at my mother’s life. It’s amazing she didn’t end up in the loony bin. The understanding takes away the bitterness I felt.”
When the book was published in 2013, Sellars anticipated the kind of hate mail that had come after the University of Guelph reports on St Joseph’s Mission School in the 1990s but the response to her book has been positive. Residential school survivors have said: “that’s my story; that’s how I felt”. The generation that escaped the residential school horrors said: “thank you; now I understand my parents better.” Schools and libraries are asking Sellars to talk about the effects of her years in St. Joseph’s Mission. West Point Grey Academy in Vancouver invited her to speak at their Aboriginal Awareness Day.
Chief Bev Sellars presented her memoir, They Called Me Number One to Canada’s Truth & Reconciliation Commission as part of the public archive.
The five-year mission of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been to “reveal the complete story of Canada’s residential school system, and lead the way to respect through reconciliation … for the child taken, for the parent left behind. To establish a renewed sense of Canada that is inclusive and respectful, and that enables reconciliation.”
Does the Truth and Reconciliation process mean things will improve? Sellars hesitates. She thinks that it’s important that non-Aboriginal people hear the stories and she was impressed that students came up from Oregon to listen, that 70,000 people listened to speeches and paraded in support on the last day of the TRC hearings in Vancouver. But the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal People published a report which included a twenty-year agenda for implementing changes. “There is some excellent work there and yet nothing has really changed,” Sellars says. “So I’m not sure the TRC will make a difference.”
Time might. Sellars quotes from The Historic Trauma and Aboriginal Healing booklet that says traumatic events need to stop for a period of forty years before socio-cultural reconstruction and healing begin. Aboriginal people haven’t yet had forty years to recover from five hundred years of non-Aboriginal diseases, expulsion from homelands, loss of economic self-sufficiency, removal of children from their homes, assimilation tactics and incarceration in prisons and residential schools.
What does she want to see happen? The 1876 Indian Act, which keeps power out of the hands of the people and in the hands of government, should be repealed. The government moves slowly, if at all. Non-Aboriginal people need to join First Nations to bring about change.
“Aboriginal people need to control their own lives. We have to be able to make our own mistakes. We need the resources to develop programs that we know we require. Not every community has the same needs. You always have to have hope and I’m hoping the TRC will mean change. That there will be enough pressure on the government to make them realize they have to deal with Aboriginal people justly and fairly.”
Meanwhile, memoirs, fiction, poetry and children’s books written by Aboriginal people are entering the market and making the bestseller lists. “Some White people know more now,” Sellars smiles, a little sadly. “You always have to have hope.”
Born in Toronto in 1949, Leslie Hill has lived in Vancouver since 2004. She taught English and Library Skills in Toronto high schools for 25 years before moving to the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland for almost six. In 2008, she graduated from Simon Fraser University’s Writers Studio program in creative writing. She has self-published Dressed for Dancing: My Sojourn in the Findhorn Foundation (Incite Press, 2012). Her essay on grief was published in B.C. BookWorld in 2012.
Eldon Yellowhorn reviews Bev Sellars’ Price Paid: The Fight for First Nations Survival, a popular exploration of the hidden history of Indigenous Canada and a sequel to her bestselling They Called Me Number One.
REVIEW: Paid Price: The Fight for First Nations Survival
By Bev Sellars
Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2016. $19.95 9780889229723
Reviewed by Eldon Yellowhorn.
Recycling is a common theme running through this book. Just like the 100% post-consumer recycled paper and the cover design, much of the historical rhetoric is reclaimed and reused.
In the preface, Bev Sellars explains that her motivation for this contribution stems from her experience as legal counsel in the British Columbia Treaty Commission.
What put the burr in her craw was the ahistorical, tunnel vision of mainstream Canada. Federal and provincial treaty negotiators knew the law and public policy, but in their modern bias there no was no room for the precise provenance of history.
Sellars’ remedy to this tendency to privileged, self-serving presentism was to compose a series of powerpoint presentations to give some details about the Aboriginal peoples’ side of the historical ledger, which she then presented at workshops.
However, largely for this reason the book never aspires to be more than, and never rises beyond, an overly long powerpoint presentation.
Beyond the well-travelled path through historical trivia that attests to an imagined golden, olden Indigenous Age, Sellars asserts that people have been in the Americas for 40,000 years. Where and how she dug up that number she does not explain.
In due course, newcomers arrive to disrupt the pre-contact era. In swift succession, Sellars breezes past the milestones of dispossession, e.g. the doctrine of discovery and the Royal Proclamation of 1763, that continue to resonate with meaning among Aboriginal people.
However, some of the historical information she presents is speculation disguised as fact. For example, palaeodemography in the Americas is fraught with ambiguity and any number generated by it is just that—a number. So her contention that 67.5–106.4 million casualties resulted from European contact is sensationalism for its own sake.
That colonization always inspires a good rant holds true here. Much of Chapter 3 is a narrative of hardship imposed by a colonial authority and enforced by Christian missionaries. Oddly, it competes here with fond memories of a bucolic life on a small reserve with a tight-knit family coupled with a nostalgic community history.
Of course, no volume on First Nation survival would be complete without a diatribe on the Indian Act, so Sellars devotes the next three chapters to this instrument of oppression both as a legal artefact and as “the devil you know.”
While amendments to the Indian Act create abstract policies, they also have real impacts on communities, families, and individuals. However, the disjointed discussion never achieves its intended purpose.
One example that illustrates this point is Sellars’ interpretation of the Drybones decision of 1969 (p. 96). She ignores some essential elements of this case and maintains that it hinged on whether or not there are Indian Reserves in the Northwest Territories.
Nowhere does she mention that the section of the Indian Act banning Indians from possessing alcohol, under which Joseph Drybones was charged, had a harsher sanction than if he had been charged under the Northwest Territories Liquor Ordinance.
This case offended the guarantee of equality before the law expressed in the Canadian Bill of Rights of 1960 because two conflicting statutes imperilled one man. Perhaps the lesson to be learned here is that regular attendance at lectures in law school is the best preparation for a law career.
Bill Wilson, the author’s husband, closes Chapter 6 with a first person account of his connection to Leonard Peltier, the long-time political activist and icon of the American Indian Movement.
Wilson’s voice persists into Chapter 7. His memoir relates to the era when Canada patriated its constitution. His first hand observations as a player in the national conferences on aboriginal affairs are the most interesting part of the book and really should form the basis of a stand-alone volume.
Chapters 8 through 10 restore the author’s voice. Not burdened by extensive research, this retrospection meanders through impressionistic explanations rather than shoring up insights based on detailed analysis of textual records.
Writing history requires discipline in order to detach outrage from the finding of facts, which are often expressed in the loose vernacular of the times.
Certainly there is a lot to take umbrage about in archival documents that invariably regard Aboriginal people as the marginalized subaltern. To assume otherwise or to apply modern mores to historical texts will only reinforce a durable indignation.
Studying history is about gaining insights into the big picture of the world out there and situating local experience therein. Nothing like that emerges from these pages of recycled paper. Indeed, much of the discussion here is bereft of context or citation, which gives the impression that its purpose is to implicate history as just another means of oppression.
Anyone looking for fresh historical synthesis or novel insights will therefore be disappointed, but then who seeks deep meaning in powerpoint presentations or informational workshops?
One take-away message is Sellars’ point that, on the eve of this sesquicentennial, Aboriginal people still consider themselves Canadian if necessary, but not necessarily Canadian.
-- THE ORMSBY REVIEW, 2016
Price Paid: The Fight for First Nations Survival
from Caroline Woodward
British Columbia for Dummies
Bev Sellars does not mince words in her turbo-charged history lessons.
Price Paid: The Fight for First Nations Survival by Bev Sellars (Talon $19.95)
Bev Sellars served as the Chief of the Xat’sull (Soda Creek) First Nation near Williams Lake from 1987 to 1993 and from 2009 to 2015. But before that she became a mother at the age of nineteen.
After raising three children, she attended university as a mature student in Victoria where, much to her surprise, after dismal experiences in residential school, she discovered a passion for history.
Her passion is now reflected in Price Paid: The Fight for First Nations Survival, her follow-up to the resounding critical and popular success of her memoir, They Called Me Number One: Secrets and Survival at an Indian Residential School (Talon, 2013).
The fact that Bev Sellars eventually attended law school at UBC and earned her LLB while living in one of the family residences on campus, caring for two of her children (one attending university, the other high school), and a nephew attending high school, is a testament to her energy level and turbo-charged intelligence.
Now her ability to research, synthesize and focus on the task at hand has led to another highly readable and engaging book.
Armed with her degrees—and thousands of years of cultural instruction transmitted through her grandparents—Sellars worked on the B.C. Treaty Commission from 2003 to 2009. During this process it became alarmingly apparent that the shoddy education she’d received in both her elementary and high school Canadian history classes was shared by some aboriginal and nearly all the non-aboriginal negotiators around the Commission table.
That was the germination point for Price Paid.
During the Treaty Commission meetings one of the commissioners—according to Sto:lo Nation representative Stephen Point (who later became Lieutenant Governor) —actually said, “B.C. brings land to the negotiation table. Canada brings money. The First Nations do not bring anything to the table.” Whereupon Bev Sellars replied, “Aboriginal people bring all the land, and the money the governments bring comes from resources held on Aboriginal lands.”
Sellars consequently developed a two-hour education session on B.C. for government ministries and other commissioners. Now her book has emerged with some encouragement from her second husband Hereditary Chief Bill Wilson, aka Hemas Kla-Lee-Lee-Kla, the father of federal Minister of Justice Jody Wilson-Raybould. Bill Wilson has contributed the foreword as well as chapters on controversial 1970s American Indian Movement activist Leonard Peltier (still serving a life sentence after being convicted of murdering two FBI agents). Wilson also relates his own experience as a lawyer helping to draft the only amendment to Canada’s 1983 constitution.
Price Paid offers the reader an overview of North and South American aboriginal contributions to European lives from first contact to the present day. Before beginning chapter one, which covers human habitation from 40,000 years ago to first contact with Europeans in the 1400s, the reader is asked: What if you owned a house and a beautiful garden? Would you share it with others? Would you welcome them?
By chapter five, the question is: What if eventually you are displaced to the garage and the newcomers take over the rest of the house? Is it theirs?
Bev Sellars examines derogatory terms such as ‘Indian giver’ and discusses the importance of medicinal plants, and hunting and fishing rights. We learn how the democratic model of the Iroquois Confederacy influenced Benjamin Franklin’s thinking.
The term ‘newcomers’ is applied to those who came to Canada and were helped by First Nations guides and healers and cooks—when they were found stumbling along the Fraser River, half-starved and looking for gold in the Cariboo.
We learn that the job of establishing reserve boundaries was mostly left up to gold commissioners with no legal or surveying background. Re-jigged boundaries were quickly drawn up to benefit a newcomer who wanted a spot on the river for his flour mill, to cite just one example, which meant an entire First Nations village was relocated. Agreements were not worth the paper they were written on and underlined the imbalance of power between those who were literate and those who gave aural consent before witnesses.
The Indian Act and the power wielded by Indian Agents, the repression of cultural ceremonies, the damage done in residential schools and the fact that women were suddenly removed from long-held leadership roles by the newcomers (English law designated women as ‘chattels’ or property of men) created what the United Nations defines as ‘cultural genocide’.
As late as 1975 when Bev Sellars was first married, she was told she would lose her rights as a member of the Soda Creek band; her rights and those of her children would be ‘transferred’ to the band to which her husband belonged. Fortunately, he agreed to move to her community and didn’t lose any of his rights by doing so.
Other chapters provide lessons in Indian Band Governance, the Department of Indian Affairs, Land Claims, Re-Establishing Aboriginal Rights and ‘Tilting of Power Back to First Nations.’ It is now the duty of all levels of government to meaningfully consult with First Nations.
Price Paid is sometimes painful reading but it is necessary if we are to move forward as a country—First Nations and newcomers together—armed with knowledge and empathy. 978-0-88922-972-3
Caroline Woodward is the author of eight books. Alaska Highway Two-Step, first published by Polestar in 1993, will be re-issued by Harbour Publishing in 2017. Her daily mantra is: Respect Treaty 8! No Site C!