Along with her husband Chief Andy Chelsea, Phyllis Chelsea led a movement during the 1970s to abstain from alcohol and drugs within the Alkali Lake Indian Band, now known as the Esketemc, a nation of approximately 600 Secwepemc (Shuswap) people south of Williams Lake. At one time the Alkali Band had an alcoholism rate estimated as high as 100 percent. The social devastation caused primarily by substance abuse was such that others referred to the community as Alcohol Lake. Liquor stores and taxis in Williams Lake benefited from the widespread chronic addiction; there were regular deliveries three times per week on the so-called "Dog Creek Stage," and bootlegging was rampant.

Phyllis Chelsea was the first to abstain, followed by her husband four days later, in June of 1972. They were responding to their seven-year-old daughter Ivy who told them, "I don't want to live with you anymore." The Chelsea family was encouraged by Alcoholics Anonymous counselor Ed Lynch, an Oblate Brother. Andy Chelsea was elected as band chief soon after he quit drinking. He instituted a variety of reforms, some of which were very unpopular, in order to achieve an abstention rate of more than 90 percent by 1979. Liquor sales on the reserve were banned, the RCMP used marked bills to entrap local bootleggers (including the mothers of Andy and Phyllis Chelsea), chronic drinkers received vouchers for Williams Lake stores instead of welfare money, an alcoholic priest was encouraged to leave the reserve and perpetrators of alcohol-related crimes were given the choice between jail and undergoing treatment.

Ivy Chelsea, a single mother of five, is now employed as a Secwepemc teacher and a facilitator and trainer for Letwilc Trainings. Sometimes accompanied by her mother, Ivy Chelsea has traveled extensively to Aboriginal communities, sharing the story of her people's progress. Andy and Phyllis Chelsea made similar trips for years, recalling their experiences across North America and Australia. Their inspirational story of attempting to "dry out" the Alkali Lake Band has been recorded in a documentary film, "Honor of All: The Story of Alkali Lake," released in 1986.

The first Indigenous person to be elected to the Cariboo Chilcotin School Board, Phyllis Chelsea has received the Order of Canada, the Order of British Columbia and an honorary degree from U.B.C. for her work. She has been instrumental in revitalizing Shuswap language and culture within schools, and co-authored Learning Shuswap, Books 1-2 (1980).

[Vickie Jensen photo]


Chelsea, Phyllis & Vickie Jensen & Jay Powell & Celina Harry. Learning Shuswap, Books 1-2 (Alkali Lake Band, 1980).

Mintz Parks, Caroline, with Andy and Phyllis Chelsea. Resolve: The Chelsea Story and a First Nation Community?s Will to Heal. Halfmoon Bay, BC: Caitlin Press, 2019. 240 pages. 9781987915884 (pbk) $24.95

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2019]