The legacy of an Esk’etemc couple’s decision to choose sobriety and help others in their community and afar is the subject of a new book.
Titled Resolve: The Story of the Chelsea Family and First Nation Community’s Will to Heal, the book was written by Carolyn Parks Mintz at the request of the late Esket Chief Andy Chelsea and his wife Phyllis.
Phyllis said it was great working with Parks Mintz on the book.
“With the book coming out, people will get to know the great man that I knew. Andy Chelsea was a genuine, people-loving leader. Our main effort was in community work and sobriety.”
Throughout the four hours of the book’s launch at The Open Book in May, there was a steady stream of family and friends congratulating Phyllis and her daughter Ivy, a Secwepemc language teacher, who introduced her parents to Parks Mintz.
Both victims of abuse at St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School near Williams Lake, Andy and Phyllis emerged as alcoholics.
However, when Ivy was only seven years old, she decided she was too afraid to go home.
“I remember all the drinking, I remember hiding because I was scared, I remember trying to stop the fighting,” said Ivy during the book launch. “You knew which houses you could go to in the community and be safe.”
Phyllis made the decision to stop drinking first, followed by Andy.
Together the couple began working with the community to help others also stop drinking. They crack down on bootlegging, connected people to treatment centres, organized meetings and even let people stay in their home sometimes.
“Dad didn’t ban alcohol from the reserve,” Ivy said. “It just became socially unacceptable to drink.”
Rekindling two of the things he loved most as a young man Andy created hockey and horse activities for the community.
“No one but its citizens could help our community initially,” Andy is quoted saying in the book.
“It had to come from within. They had to choose to change, had to want things to improve. And both those things happened.”
To this day, Ralph Phillips, an elder from Xat’sull (Soda Creek), credits the Chelseas for helping him choose sobriety 40 years ago.
“My wife Minnie is Phyllis’s sister,” he said.
“I don’t remember much before I quit drinking, but after that and working with Andy, I realized what he said was true. That we as Native people, had to quit looking back at what was wrong, what the government did or what white people did.”
He worked with Andy at a treatment centre housed in the former residential school at the mission as a drug and alcohol counsellor and learned what was important, he said.
“The simple things Andy said made life so much easier. I did not need to fight, I just needed to do the things that I needed to do.”
Phillips said he does not think the Chelseas have received the respect they deserved and he hopes the book will let people appreciated how much Andy and Phyllis did to help people.
Alan Haig-Brown taught at Esket in the early 1970s when the Chelseas were just getting started on the sobriety movement.
“I asked Phyllis to come and teach Secwepemc in the school and they both said to me, ‘we are excited about the idea but unless you will stay for at least two years, we cannot do anything. I said I’d stay for two years.”
In the second year, Phyllis and school trustees Diana French and Carol Funk got together and planned to develop a co-ordinator of native education position for School District 27.
Haig-Brown was hired and held the job for 11 years.
During that time he helped develop a K to 12 First Nation language instruction program — the first in the province, he said.
“Phyllis got on the school board and she and I worked together. We were kind of a little mafia of people. We had 18 people working in the schools that hadn’t been there before.”
The Chelseas also travelled to England, Norway, Japan, Australia, places throughout Canada and the U.S. to work with communities.
Their decision to choose sobriety has had a positive rippling effect.