Until recently, many Canadians did not know that for over a hundred years it was government policy to remove aboriginal children from their homes during their most formative years and raise them in often-abusive residential schools.
In the wake of a class-action suit sparking the Idle no More movement, an apology by the prime minister and the visits in major cities of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, many personal stories have come to light and the enormity of injustice that has been perpetrated on aboriginal people is slowly sinking in.
Bev Sellars’ newly published They Called Me Number One is one of the first full-length (and full-strength) personal accounts coming out of that experience. Its power lies in its language—simple and direct yet eloquent, as it was first written for her younger family members, to help them understand their elders and communities.
Two little girls—Sellars’ granddaughters—are pictured on the front cover. Sellars notes in her acknowledgements that had the residential school laws still been in place, these children would have been separated from their family for years. The photographs illustrating the narrative are like school pictures in old albums we all have tucked away. But that first sense of the ordinary is shattered as you read what the children in the photographs have endured.
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Sellars recounts beatings with a strap, being fed spoiled food, the withholding of medical help in emergencies, stories of sexual abuse and being utterly at the mercy of others, with “nothing to protect us but a priest’s conscience.” She narrates from a child’s perspective, with the wisdom to sense but the lack of experience to understand the contempt aimed at herself and her fellow students.
A little boy with a shining smile is pictured in one class photo, looking onto the world ahead. When you learn that this child is Sellars’ brother Michael, who might have been sexually abused at the school, and that he is now a “broken man” who “never had a chance at life,” it is infinitely sad.
Like a friend talking to her readers, Sellars matter-of-factly takes you into a parallel universe, one that existed when you were a child, affecting children just like you.
“The response to the book has been overwhelmingly positive,” Sellars says. “One thousand copies were sold before it was on the shelf.” One young man told her: “Maybe now I can forgive my dad.”
She freely writes about the anger, even hatred she felt toward “white” people—easily understood by anyone who carries a legacy of persecution and fear.
But she says she no longer feels that way, and that her time at university earning history and law degrees made a difference.
“Sometimes I get really angry about the way my people still have to live.”
It is only in 2008 that the Canadian Human Rights Act was amended to include issues formerly under the Indian Act, such as access to clean water, education and child welfare. “Before, the government could do whatever it wanted, we had no legal remedies to say it’s not right.”
In Sellars’ home in Soda Creek, B.C., there was a perpetual boil-water advisory until 10 years ago. “We didn’t have the same living standards as everyone else.”
Negative stereotypes of aboriginal people still abound, Sellars says. “Aboriginal people have been locked out of the economy in so many ways. People condemn aboriginal people for not working but don’t know that they needed a pass to get off the reserve. Soda Creek is on one square mile of rocky hillside that probably wouldn’t support one family let alone a bunch of families. People who wanted a job had to get permission to leave.”
Sellars says the teaching of local aboriginal history is important. “I am seeing a movement in non-aboriginal communities, universities wanting to get that history into the curriculum.
“I feel optimistic about it.”
However, the concept of reconciliation is still elusive, she says. “We have to pursue reconciliation but the end result of what aboriginals want is probably a long way from what the government is looking at. There is not enough opportunity for aboriginal youth to have a shot at life. They need more education and training. Nothing has been given to us without us fighting and the fights have been because we have not given up. We’ll keep pushing and hopefully make Canada the country it says it is.”
They Called Me Number One, Secrets and Survival at an Indian Residential School by Bev Sellars is published by Talonbooks. $20. talonbooks.com