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, 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."

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

[BCBW 2016]