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Family inspired residential school memoir
When Bev Sellars wrote about the time she and relatives spent in residential schools, she was writing just for her family.
The chief of the Xat sull First Nation of Williams Lake had no idea the memoir would gain national attention.
“It’s going way beyond what I had hoped for,” Sellars, 58, said of praise for They Called Me Number One: Secrets and Survival at an Indian Residential School. “I had hoped my family members would read it and a few people in Williams Lake, and some people in Williams Lake who are really racist. And that was what I was hoping for.”
Sellars spoke with the News Leader Pictorial Monday from Vancouver, while returning from readings at Seattle University and the Seattle public library.
She’s now gearing for more readings on Vancouver Island, including one Thursday at the Cowichan library.
Sellars’ memoir touches on many topics, including her experience as a residential school survivor and her attempted suicide.
“I open with the first passage on my attempted suicide when I was 17 and why this happened,” Sellars said. “Suicides in Aboriginal communities is still higher than the general public. Things have to change and people have to be aware of what Aboriginal people have been through.”
Sellars hopes her troubled past will speak to current Aboriginal youth.
“It will help them understand and help them forgive some of their parents and grandparents,” she said. “There was so much chaos in our communities and the kids suffered from that, and not knowing why.”
Sellars spent her childhood in a church-run residential school whose aim it was to “beat the Indian out of the child,” as she puts it — to civilize Native children through Christian teachings, forced separation from family and culture, and discipline.
“At the age of five, Sellars was isolated for two years at Coqualeetza Indian Turberculosis Hospital in Sardis, British Columbia, nearly a six-hour drive from home. The trauma of these experiences has reverberated throughout her life,” states promotional material from publisher Talonbooks.
“The first full-length memoir to be published out of St. Joseph’s Mission at Williams Lake, B.C., Sellars tells of three generations of women who attended the school, interweaving the personal histories of her grandmother and her mother with her own.
“She tells of hunger, forced labour, and physical beatings, often with a leather strap, and also of the demand for conformity in a culturally alien institution where children were confined and denigrated for failure to be white and Roman Catholic.”
“It’s not just Aboriginal history, it’s Canadian history too,” Sellars said, noting a 60-year-old fellow who stopped by one of her readings and said he had no idea about anything that occurred at residential schools.
Sellars wasn’t aware of Cowichan’s recent work on drawing bridges between racial boundaries in the community, including a series of workshops currently being staged by Social Planning Cowichan on racism.
“I don’t really think where the best crowd will be,” she admitted. “If I’m invited somewhere, even if one person comes and learns something that’s great. And if that one person spreads the word, even better.”
She noted of packed-house readings and ones where only six people showed. Both scenarios resulted in healthy and lengthy discussions, so long they had to be cut off by event organizers.
Topics discussed in They Called Me Number One still resonate for many people, although efforts have been made to reconcile, including the official apology to residential school survivors in 2007 from Prime Minister Stephen Harper on behalf of Canadians.
“But I haven’t really seen any meaningful actions after that,” Sellars said.
“I was writing (the book) originally for my younger relatives, because I was thinking we’re all going to die and they’re not going to understand what happened.”
A lot of stories from Sellars’ memoir are just reaching the surface now.
“There’s about 20 years of notes in there. I was just kind of connecting the dots,” she said. “At the time, I didn’t tell my kids. We didn’t tell them anything about it in detail.”
Sellars, like many Native children forced by law to attend schools across Canada and the United States, was only allowed home for two months in the summer and for two weeks at Christmas.
“The rest of the year they lived, worked, and studied at the school,” states promotional material.
“St. Joseph’s mission is the site of the controversial and well-publicized sex-related offences of Bishop Hubert O’Connor, which took place during Sellars’ student days, between 1962 and 1967, when O’Connor was the school principal.
“After the school’s closure, those who had been forced to attend came from surrounding reserves and smashed windows, tore doors and cabinets from the wall, and broke anything that could be broken.”
Sellars’ stories in They Called Me have received much praise.
“Chief Sellars bravely adds her voice to the burgeoning chorus of stories about residential schools,” stated former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Chief Phil Fontaine. “That she has been able to carefully articulate such a deeply personal and painful story is a testament to her courage and determination.”
Canadian and Cree playwright, novelist, and children’s author Tomson Highway agreed.
“An important contribution to the collective voice now addressing the subject of the residential schools, written by one who’s been there,” he said. “An essential part of the healing process. May it continue.”
Sellars’ reading at the Cowichan Library is free (no registration required) and will start at 2 p.m.
She will read from the memoir as well as perform a 35- to 40-minute presentation centred around the creation of the book and offer a question and discussion period afterwards.