She is a woman of many awards, no doubt, but one with much tragedy in her life. Still, Joan Gentles of the Tl’esqox First Nation said just how fortunate she is.
Gentles was born on Dec. 9, 1946, and grew up in Riske Creek with her parents, Leonard and Josephine Palmantier. The third youngest of eight children, she grew up poor.
“You grow up poor, but you don’t know you’re poor because that’s the life you live, right,” said Gentles.
She was also privileged to be raised by Chief Johnny Baptiste and wife, Elsie. He was chief of the Toosey band for about 34 years.
“I learned a lot from people who did not have a day of Western education,” Gentles said, including her mother and grandparents. Gentles was thankful to learn about her culture and speak her native language, even speaking little English when she started school in Riske Creek.
She went to high school in Williams Lake, which was hard, as her older siblings had all left school at 16 in Grade 8. At 14, she knew she was too young not to go to school, so on she went.
With no school buses or a family vehicle, neighbouring ranchers helped Gentles. Joyce MacDonald assisted in getting her into the high school dormitory so she could attend school. Pat Loring transported her back and forth to the dormitory on Fridays and Sundays with her other children. The dorms at the time were located where the SD27 administration building is on Second Avenue North.
Tragedy struck when Gentles’ father passed away of natural causes when she was nearing 17. A month later, her sister Susan, a few weeks before her 14th birthday, was accidentally shot by her brother. Sadly, she did not survive.
Gentles was in Williams Lake when the accident occurred and, with no way of getting home to Riske Creek, determined she would walk. Instead, the priest who told her of the incident — but did not tell her if anyone had died — drove her home into a “very traumatized situation.”
“That put heavy responsibility on me,” said Gentles, now caring for her mourning mother and grief-stricken siblings. “Ever since then, it’s almost like I’ve become the eldest in the family.” The tragedy severely affected her sister, Lillian, who walked in when Susan was shot. Lillian and Gentles remain close.
Gentles completed her Grade 10 year through correspondence and began working, grateful to the ranchers, including Mel Moon and the Thompson Ranch, who would hire her, allowing her to bring home more money for the family.
She later went to business college in Kamloops, where she continued working to pay her room and board. She’d work as a cashier during her school lunch breaks and, by 3:30 p.m., was back at the restaurant again.
Around this time, she received some beautiful visitors, Hilary and Rita Place, who encouraged Gentles to run for Williams Lake Stampede Queen. She said no the first time, but after a follow-up supper, she gave in.
In June 1966, she won Stampede Queen shortly after completing school in Kamloops. She returned to Williams Lake and began waiting tables, later working for B.C. Tel’s toll department, working her way up to be a supervisor, training new staff and evaluating staff.
Her responsibilities increased when her brother and his wife separated, and her widowed mother took in their six children. She wanted to keep the children together and asked Gentles to help.
Gentles worked steadily, assisting in putting food on the table for her nieces and nephews. With no car, her mother would occasionally be able to catch a ride in, meeting up with Gentles to get groceries. If her mother needed a cab home, Gentles would pay the bill.
“My food on my table was quite limited until my next pay cheque,” she said, acknowledging how grateful she was to share expenses with her roommate, Jean Sandy Williams.
Gentles was later approached to run for Regatta Queen. Too shy to say no, the ladies picked out her bathing suits. Williams and the Sugar Cane Homemakers Club stepped in, saving her from parading around in a bathing suit, she said.
Instead, they asked her to represent them as the B.C. Indian Princess candidate at the Vancouver pageant happening the same day in 1967.
“They saved my bacon,” Gentles laughed.
She won, later winning Canadian Indian Princess in Winnipeg during its centennial year. With boosted confidence, she made sure her behaviour represented her people in a good way. She didn’t drink or smoke and learned to dress appropriately for the different functions, even learning to put on makeup.
After being crowned Williams Lake Stampede Queen, she called the Calgary Stampede to let them know she was coming to make a speech.
“That’s how brave I was.”
She made the speech on a big stage in front of the grandstands.
She attributed her success as a horsewoman, princess and queen to the many individuals who saw her abilities and fostered them.
“There were always helpful rodeo contestants who provided a horse for me to use in all the rodeo grand entries that I attended.”
Returning home, she continued helping her mother raise the kids, later giving birth to her son, Wade, in 1969. A few years later, her sister Lillian gave birth to a girl at age 17.
In a welfare system that took Indigenous children away from their families, Gentles quickly took her baby niece Shawnee home from the hospital, later bringing her and Lillian to her mother, who could teach Lillian to parent. Her mother raised Shawnee anyway, adding seven to the lot of grandchildren she was raising. It should be noted Shawnee Palmantier now holds a master’s degree and works as a lawyer.
Gentles’ husband, Bill, whom she married when she was 21, also loved the kids. He didn’t mind Gentles’ dedication to caring for her mother and extended family.
Sadly, on Feb. 13, 1975, Bill was killed in a logging accident. Deep in grief and with the responsibility of so many young ones, Gentles had no choice but to put one foot in front of the other.
Gentles did much volunteer work and interpreted for doctors and at court, so Indigenous people could be served better. Then, the Native Courtworker and Counselling Association of B.C. posted a court worker position in Williams Lake, and Judge Cunliffe Barnett encouraged Gentles to apply.
She loved her job with B.C. Tel but knew they’d close down toll departments in smaller communities, and she wasn’t moving to a city.
She received the court worker position, later saying the work was heavy, too large of an area – from Ashcroft to Quesnel to Bella Coola and Ocean Falls – and the justice system, not as honest as she’d like to see.
Gentles thought, “How can I better make a change for the people? … If I go into education, I can teach the kids and work my way through that way.”
This led her to move to Vancouver — her son, niece and nephew in tow — to complete her Bachelor of Education at UBC. The move didn’t come after many discussions with her mother, though, as the duo struggled to put enough food on the table for everyone. Her mother reluctantly agreed to allow Gentles to get assistance for the children through the Ministry of Children and Family Development.
During Gentles’ second year at school, her mother fell ill, and doctors told the family they didn’t expect her to make it. Miraculously, she did, although she was eventually sent to St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver by the nurses’ recommendation. This meant more children joined Gentles in her tiny campus apartment, and they spent the next year caring for her mother, who was eventually moved into Gentles’ apartment with daily nurse visits.
Gentles and her family moved back to Williams Lake once she began her school practicum there. She graduated in 1980 and, in 1984, had another son, James McClure.
After several years in a healthy relationship, things took a turn and Gentles left, though she stayed too long, she said, wanting to provide stability for her son. Once James turned 23, she ended things. Sadly, this came after a fire was started, burning her home and possessions to the ground.
Undefeated, she was hired by Martin Hamm, assistant superintendent of School District 27, as a classroom teacher and then as a coordinator of Indian Education. She later applied and was hired as the director of instruction for the SD27 First Nations Department in 1994. A few years later, she started her Masters in Counselling through the University of Victoria.
Of course, moving to the city again would be costly, so Gentles worked with Dr. R. Vance Peavy to bring the program to her and others while also being more culturally appropriate.
The caveat, though, was getting enough students for the program. They successfully brought in over 40 students from Vanderhoof, Prince George, Quesnel, 100 Mile, Kamloops and even Pemberton. The professors would come to Williams Lake from UVIC, working with students on the weekends. The program took around two years of study, and 23 people graduated from the program, Gentles included.
More tragedy struck. In 1996, her oldest son, Wade, was killed in a drunk-driving car accident while returning home from the Ashcroft Rodeo, leaving behind his two sons, Lane and Wyatt. Gentles helped Wade’s partner, Marie, financially in raising the boys and her other two children until they were old enough to work.
Only two months later, her nephew Gerry – like a son to Gentles – died of cancer.
Later, Dr. Peavy passed. By his wish, Gentles hosted his service — a privilege, she said — in both Victoria and Ottawa, including an additional conference, where he was honoured by people worldwide.
On overcoming so much hardship, Gentles said she turned to her mother’s strength, for she, too, had lost her husband and daughter.
“I appreciated her strength more by what I watched her do. So I guess just being thankful that she was who she was so that I could be strong as well.”
Throughout her hardship, Gentles has received countless awards in her 77 years. In 1966, she was the Williams Lake Stampede Queen; 1967, the Williams Lake Citizen of the Year, Indian Princess of Canada Expo and Indian Princess of B.C.; 1992, Order of B.C.; 2000, Tsilhqot’in Outstanding Achievement Award; 2001, Lifetime Achievement Award by the BCRA; 2003, B.C. Golden Jubilee Award and Gold Card by the BCRA; 2006, B.C. Cowboy Hall of Fame inductee; 2012, Women of Heart award; 2014, Aboriginal Women of Distinction.
However, when speaking of her accomplishments, which she said people tend to focus on, the trauma in her life should be told. Gentles said when she shares her honest truth, people share their truths and begin to heal.
Gentles is still busy, and though she retired in 2012, she’s never stopped working. She has sat on many committees, including the Tsilhqot’in governance committee. She’s also one of the elders on Indigenous Courts, which takes place once a month in town and includes legal work and counselling.
“To me, it’s a better system because nobody is trying to get out of anything. It’s dealing with what they need to heal from.”
Gentles also assists in counselling roles at different functions, is called upon at the Nenqayni Wellness Centre Society and masters of ceremonies, and is asked to speak and encourage others.
She once mortgaged her home to help others pay for personal development activities and paid for many healing ceremonies and feasts for others to join in their healing journey.
She also enjoys spending time with her grandchildren, Quinn and Coner, and horses. At one point, she had a herd of Corriente cattle; however, when she lost one of her eyes — her retina detached, also causing her to lose her balance — she could not tend to her livestock. In 2006, the Call boys helped sell her herd, for which she was grateful.
Just under six months later, through prayers and assistance from family and friends, she noted, she was able to get back to work.
“Two specialists told me I wouldn’t be able to drive again or work, but I’m a believer.” After a healing ceremony, she found her balance again.
“I’ve been very fortunate. I always say that I’ve been very, very fortunate.”
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