Resolve: The Story of the Chelsea Family and a First Nation Community’s
Will to Heal by Carolyn Parks-Mintz (Caitlin Press $24.95)

Review by Sage Birchwater

Andy Chelsea was chief of Esk’etemc First Nation at Alkali Lake when I arrived in the Cariboo Chilcotin in 1973. The year before, he and his wife Phyllis launched a sobriety movement that would eventually transform their whole community and send reverberations around the world.

But the struggle to turn a community soused in alcohol into a healthy, productive place was monumental. When I met the Chelseas they were the only adults in Esk’et not imbibing. In fact the nickname for Alkali Lake at that time was Alcohol Lake, and Andy and Phyllis wanted very much to change that image.

I was a back-to-the-lander seeking a simpler way of life when I met Andy. I told him how much I envied his growing up in a log cabin, and expressed my aspirations to do the same. He surprised me with his response. “I want what you had growing up,” he said. “A modern house with amenities like electricity and running water.”

So there we were two ships passing in the night, each heading in opposite directions. Well not completely. We were both committed to social change and making a difference outside the box. So on that level we stayed connected and maintained a lifelong friendship.

Resolve: The Story of the Chelsea Family and a First Nation Community’s Will to Heal by Carolyn Parks-Mintz, begins with Phyllis and Andy’s early life before alcohol was a problem. It describes their idyllic childhood living “up the meadow” with grandparents or in remote cowboy camps beyond Gang Ranch where they rode horses every day for fun.

It also describes the harsh transition when the children from Esk’et were herded into cattle trucks and sent to Saint Joseph’s Mission residential school and were forced to live apart from the nurturing and love of their families ten months of the year.

Parks-Mintz doesn’t spare any punches describing Phyllis and Andy’s personal accounts of the traumatic physical and sexual abuse they suffered there. The result was deep emotional and psychological wounding that would take a lifetime to heal.

Phyllis and Andy got to know each other at Saint Joseph’s though there were strict rules keeping the boys and girls apart. They were both shy and recognized a kindred spirit in one another. After leaving the mission they eventually became close and were married in 1964. Phyllis was 21 and Andy, 22.

Alcohol became a big factor in their lives, just as it was with most adults in Esk’et. Andy was a hard worker and a good provider, employed during the week at Linde Brothers Sawmill at Springhouse. The Chelseas enjoyed a rich family life with the birth of three children in their first seven years of marriage.

Weekends however were different. Their social life included binge drinking with friends and family and that’s when things often got ugly.

Parks-Mintz attributes the negativity triggered by the alcohol to the undercurrent of trauma suffered at residential school and the historical impacts of colonial and systemic racism.
“When alcohol was involved, things got rough,” Phyllis states. “A different side of people would come out, and mostly it wasn’t good.”

At the time, the Chelseas’ three kids, Ivy, Dean and Robert (Kevin and Owen were born later), usually spent the weekends with one of their grandmothers while Phyllis and Andy partied. Then after one raucous weekend in 1972, seven-year-old Ivy told her mother she no longer wanted to live with them because they drank too much.

Phyllis took her daughter’s remonstrations to heart. She reflected how she was passing on the hurt and neglect she had inherited from her residential school experience onto her children.
That’s when Phyllis saw the urgency to make radical changes in her life. She promised Ivy if she came home she would quit drinking for good, and she immediately poured all the booze in the house down the kitchen sink. “I never took another drink again,” she says.
A week later, Andy followed suit, and that’s how it all began.

It was a lonely existence trying to reverse a social pattern so deeply engrained in the community. But Andy and Phyllis were determined. At first they were the only adults in Esk’et to give up drinking. Even the resident Catholic priest was a drunk, a bootlegger and a philanderer.

The Chelseas got support from Oblate Brother Ed Lynch in Williams Lake, who had wrestled with his own alcoholism and was now reaching out to help others. Gradually, one by one, other Esk’etemc members joined the Chelseas in their bid for sobriety.

Resolve is a story of personal triumph and achievement and community empowerment as more and more Esk’etemc people swore off the bottle. In less than ten years they went from 100 per cent alcohol users to more than 90 per cent sober.

Over the years new strong leadership emerged in Esk’et, inspired in large part by the Chelseas. Quite naturally there have been ups and downs as each generation comes to terms with its own challenges.

In 2019, Esk’et continues to be an exemplary community with wellness and pride at the forefront. Every year the annual Esk’et AA Roundup is attended by people from around the world.

Sobriety was just the first step on the long road to recovery. It made time and space for the community to address deeper problems like indigenous rights, reconciliation and justice for First Peoples in Canada. Parks-Mintz includes the comments and narrative of other Indigenous leaders on these subjects.

Andy Chelsea passed away while this book was in progress but he left assured his story would be told. 978-1987915884

Sage Birchwater is a long-time resident of the Chilcotin. He has written several books about the area including Chiwid (New Star, 1995). A version of this review first appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of The Green Gazette, —Ed.