Wednesday, July 12, 2023

"They Called Me Number One: Secrets and Survival in an Indian Residential School" by Bev Sellars

 {This article originally appeared in the  July edition of the Anahim-Nimpo Lake Messenger . It was submitted in June 2023.}

There is one book that everybody in the Cariboo-Chilcotin should read: Bev Sellars’s They Called Me Number One: Secrets and Survival at an Indian Residential School (Talon Books: 2013). Most of the events Sellars describes occurred in places you may have heard of: her home community of Deep Creek, Soda Creek, the St. Joseph’s Mission, and a certain town called Williams Lake, B.C.

Even more interesting for me is when  these events took place. Ms. Sellars is only five years older than I am.  Her mother, Evelyn, was born in 1925—in the same year and only a month later than my own mother, also named Evelyn, was born.  When my family moved to Williams Lake in 1973, we moved into the house at the airport turnoff, eight miles north of town. At that time, Sellars would have been eighteen and starting her first job as a teaching aide at Wildwood Elementary School, which was only a mile away from our home.

She and I had some of the same teachers at Williams Lake Junior Secondary School: Mr. Poulton for grade 8 French, Mr. Wiebe for social studies, and a math teacher I would later have at Columneetza (Mr. Scheck).  We had much in common. If I had met her at the Wildwood store or while walking along the path that joined Wildwood to the airport, would we have struck up a conversation? Would that possibly have sparked an awareness of native issues that I clearly lacked?

It seems doubtful somehow.  She had just had a close call with a RCMP officer who had tried to lure her into his car (possibly the same one who allegedly assaulted another girl from a neighbouring community a short time later).  Three or four years earlier,  a female relative of hers had been assaulted close to my house. It was well known that White men were able to rape native women and get away with it most of the time.  So she would not have been walking alone and striking up conversations with strangers.

Many native people have a gift for candour, and you know that every word she says is true, because she doesn’t hide embarrassing facts about herself—like the time she almost ran down some white hitch-hikers for giving her the finger. “Father O’Connor, later Bishop O’Connor, was the only principal ever tried and convicted. Four principals in a row should have been charged, three of whom became bishops. If the top people at these institutions were abusing, it is easy to see why the others were allowed to abuse so freely.”

She doesn’t jump up and down accusing the school of killing her brother. She is not even certain that he committed suicide.  But you know from her description of the way Bobby’s head hung after he had been caught by the  RCMP and marched back to the Mission that his spirit had been broken, and that it was the School that had broken it.  She lets the facts speak for themselves.

It was not just the occasional horror of sexual abuse, but the constant mis-use of corporal punishment (“In addition to the daily ritual of kids getting the strap for wetting the bed, hardly a day went by without someone getting the strap for some other reason.”) One native acquaintance of mine from my high school class told me that her mother got the strap just for speaking her own language.

But for me the most heart-breaking parts are when high hopes and expectations were cut short by .dream-killing systemic racism. Sellars observes that “Good teachers didn’t last long.” She herself was steered into a vocational program that prevented her from becoming a nurse. These stories give a hint of what could have been if a modicum of goodwill and adequate funding had been brought to bear in native education. In the years following the Second World War, federal governments spent billions on vote-getting shared cost programs to provide better health and education for the provinces, while continuing to neglect the very kids they were most responsible for in their own jurisdiction.

As a teenager, I was very conscious of the fact that my father only had a grade six education, and that I belonged to the first generation in our family to graduate high school and go on to college or university. But there was a far bigger local story going on. We should have been celebrating the first generation of native students who were participating in the public schools on a more-or-less equal footing, and doing something to repair the damage that had been done to the people who came before them. But instead, it never crossed my mind.   I am truly very sorry about that.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022


 Here is a link to a short column I wrote in the Anahim-Nimpo Lake Messenger for April 2022 on the  subject of the INVASION OF UKRAINE.

Sunday, February 27, 2022

Worries about Ukraine

 Are we prepared to discipline China for helping Russia through the back door? How prepared are our leaders to inflict economic pain on ourselves?  

What will become of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, the university where I taught in 1994-95? Its bilingual status (classes in English and Ukrainian) and long history are pointedly non-Russian: it is implicitly against the Russian imperium. I urge my readers to read their plea.

Saturday, February 19, 2022

About the Trucker's Strike

 "In a free society the state does not administer the affairs of men. It administers justice among men who conduct their own affairs."

--Walter Lippmann
Well, I think that the government is administering justice between protestors who complain about the infringement of their liberty by public health regulation and the rights of those whose liberties they have infringed---the rights of residents to live in noise-free environment most of the time, the rights to cross the border, cross the bridge, and to live in a relatively safe reduced-COVID environment. Since most public health regulations have actually fallen short of what health experts have recommended, and three weeks is an indulgently long time to allow such a costly protest to continue, the truckers would be unlikely to survive the section 1 proportionality analysis in a Charter Challenge for the infringement of their section 2 Freedom of "thought, belief, opinion and expression". On the other hand, they might have a chance of arguing (thanks to the Canadian Civil Liberties Association) that the invocation of the Emergencies Act was unnecessary and disproportional. The court case and the commission of inquiry will shed some useful light on whether Justin Trudeau shares some of the blame for allowing this to get out of hand.
Heather Buzila

Friday, September 10, 2021

The 2021 English Leaders' Debate


And the Big Winner was: Francois Legault.  Having extracted a pricey child care subsidy and an endorsement of Quebec's constitutional "nationhood" by dangling the possibility of a majority in front of Trudeau, he then pivoted with a thinly-veiled endorsement of O'Toole for respecting provincial jurisdiction. Then Blanchet was able to fan some nationalist flame over Bill 21.  Even Annemie Paul's strong performance helps Legault & O'Toole, since she takes most of her votes from the NDP and the Libs.

Justin Trudeau got played by a Quebec nationalist premier. His father must surely be spinning in his grave.

Perhaps the debate will have little impact on the course of the election. But it prevented either Trudeau or Singh from punching through, which either of them could have done under a different format.

A possible small winner: Paul Manly, the Green MP in Nanaimo-Ladysmith, who had been given up for dead but can now try to run on Paul's strong debate performance.

But the big problem in a possible future minority government alliance between the Bloc and western -based Conservatives is that it will prove to be about as stable as the Quebec-West alliance was under Brian Mulroney. (Think: polar opposites on equalization and climate/energy.)  
And we all know how that turned out. 

Friday, July 02, 2021



Dakota Smith, a meteorologist at Colorado’s Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere, said in a tweet that he observed “absolutely mind-blowing wildfire behavior in British Columbia.”
He included satellite images from above Lytton earlier this week and added: “incredible & massive storm-producing pyrocumulonimbus plumes.”Daniel Swain, a climatologist with the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA, wrote on Twitter: “I’ve watched a lot of wildfire-associated pyroconvective events during the satellite era, and I think this might be the singularly most extreme I’ve ever seen.”
He added: “This is a literal firestorm, producing *thousands* of lightning strikes and almost certainly countless new fires.”Chris Vagasky, a meteorologist with Vaisala, which tracks lightning strikes around the world, told that the North American Lightning Detection Network sensed 710,177 strikes across British Columbia and northwestern Alberta over the course of about 15 hours in recent days.

On the Legacy of Sir John A. Macdonald


The discovery of 215 bodies in Kamloops is a gruesome reminder that maybe “genocide” is an appropriate term to use for Canada’s assimilationist policies after all.  And this may just be the tip of the iceberg: what will the final death toll be, once the grounds and the paper trails of every residential school in Canada have been thoroughly examined? Native Residential Schools were Canada’s Crime of the Century.

And yet… many people still think that it is wrong to be tearing down statues of our first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, and removing his face from our currency, and his name from every school and every airport and public building.  Why? Because, in the words of Macdonald’s most recent biographer, Richard Gwynn: “No Macdonald, no Canada.”  And if there is no Canada, there is no New Treaties, no Section 35 of the Canada Act, no aboriginal title, no Delgamuukw case, no Chilcotin case.  No official multiculturalism, no official bilingualism---and probably no universal medicare or gun control, for that matter.

Besides, according to Macdonald’s apologists, most of what befell the First Nations people was not really his fault.  For example, it is argued that he never actually intended the starvation of the Plains Indians, who were devastated by the spread of new diseases and the decimation of the buffalo herd long before he took charge. Moreover, it is worth noting that attendance of indigenous children in residential schools did not become compulsory until 1920, which was 29 years after Sir John A.’s death.

David Frum attempts to restore Macdonald’s reputation in a recent Atlantic Monthly article. He states:   "As attorney general of the pre-confederation province of Canada, [Macdonald] battled to protect escaped American slaves from extradition. His government persuaded the British government in 1862 to pass a new habeas corpus act that imposed new restrictions on cooperation with U.S. slave hunters. He welcomed Jewish immigration to Canada and for a long time strenuously but unsuccessfully resisted efforts to exclude Chinese immigrants … He headed a political coalition that bridged Canada’s great divide between French speakers and English speakers—and worked all his life for accommodation and respect between the two mutually suspicious cultures. … As the person who proposed the [residential] schools, Macdonald shares the blame for their grim human consequences. But … the worst wrongs in the schools happened after Macdonald had left this Earth, and could neither be aware of them, nor correct them.”

All of these things may be true, but Frum is still white-washing the past. It would be more accurate to say that Macdonald’s attitude to slavery mirrored that of the British Foreign Office: opposed to slavery in principle, but also willing to encourage the secession of the slave states if it meant that the USA was less of a threat to the British colonies.  And although his attitude toward escaped slaves and  immigrants may have been morally ambiguous, his attitude toward Canadian indigenous peoples was not. They stood in the way of his vision of continental expansion. So he was harder on them.  He may not have been the initial cause of their starvation or of the near-extinction of the buffalo, but he still rationed their food relief so as to induce them into fixed settlements. He starved them. His motive for doing so was plain: he felt that land had to be taken for white settlements and for the Railway, and the natives forced into becoming agricultural and industrial workers, whether they wanted to or not.

Americans seem to be able to accept that Washington and Jefferson owned slaves, but it is difficult for Canadians even to accept that Macdonald authorized residential schools. That is because the residential school system is so recent, within the living memory of so many Indigenous Canadians. Sure, Macdonald may have only intended to “assimilate” native people and not to literally kill them. But ultimately, that is not such an easy or excusable distinction to make, as the discoveries in Kamloops make all-too clear. 

Mark Crawford is an Associate Professor of political science at Athabasca University.