Connecting: spiritually, emotionally, physically and mentally to the people and places around us.
It’s something Cecil Grinder puts great emphasis on in an effort to make our region, and the world we live in a better place through his work as a wellness counsellor, traditional spiritual healer, band councillor, sports coach and youth mentor.
Grinder, now 58 years old, was born in Williams Lake but spent the vast majority of his childhood living in Tl’etinqox (Anaham) raised by his grandmother, Mabel Alphonse, and his grandfather, Charlie.
From an early age Grinder recalls learning a lot about the First Nations culture from his grandparents, uncles and aunts while attending a Catholic day school in Tl’etinqox.
His mother and father had separated, so his mom, who had been living in the Big Bar area near Clinton at the time, moved them back home.
“My mom Clara was non status, so when we moved back home we couldn’t get a house so she moved us in with my grandparents,” Grinder says. “My grandparents had a big influence on me. The ceremonies, how things were done in the past, the stories, the legends, and I learned my language from my mother’s side of the family, so when I started going to school I was actually still trying to learn English.”
Grinder says the day school he attended was quite strict, but adds he learned a lot through the experience.
“We had to pray every day, and from all the prayers I learned from the Catholic school I now mix that in with our First Nations culture because there’s so much influence in our First Nations from the early days, residential schools, and all that,” he says.
“I saw some not so good things there, but also learned a lot of good about the Western education system, but I never thought I’d get out of that system.”
Grinder’s mom and dad were both struggled with alcohol abuse, so his grandparents did their best raising him, he says.
“We were influenced by cattle, the horse industry, we did a lot of hunting, trapping, chasing wild horses – that’s the environment I grew up in. The language was very strong, speaking in Tsilhqot’in, and I was raised with some amazing people in our community. It takes a community to raise a child, and that’s what happened.”
Somewhere along the line, however, Grinder says he began travelling down a dark path during his teenage years.
He’d been sent to attend residential school at St. Joseph’s Mission upon reaching Grade 8 where he then spent the next three years.
“There, I learned my sports. I got more education, but I also saw things I didn’t want to see,” he said. “Kids getting strapped, kind of being starved if they were late for the food line.”
Grinder says he began stealing from the school by breaking into the canteen area and taking whatever he could find to get by.
“I just hit that wrong direction,” he says. “There was a lot of alcohol, a lot of violence happening in my community and in other communities I would go to. I got involved in that stuff and got in the wrong crowd and one day my mom kind of stepped on my toe and told me to smarten up. I quit school, but I did eventually go back and finish high school.”
At St. Joseph’s, Grinder says he learned a lot about sports. He also began reflecting on his days at school in Anaham which would, ultimately, lead him down what was, at the time, a most unexpected career path.
“I didn’t like the abuse part of it that happened, and that makes me cry a bit, but I was going in that wrong direction where kids were going to jail, that type of thing,” he says.
“But during that time the RCMP, they did a boys club and we rode horses, we camped, we hiked. They came out once a month and we did things together.”
His mother, at the time, was working in the judicial system doing translation work for the courts.
“I got involved in drinking at a young age, and that’s when my mom kind of pulled me away because she was an alcoholic and she quit, and she basically said enough is enough.
“One day I was hungover after I’d quit school, and I’d gotten home at six in the morning and gone to sleep and there was a knock at the door.”
It was the police, there to arrest Grinder for stealing.
“That’s when the guilt started coming to me with that bad crowd I was hanging with,” he says. “I was really scared.
“I sat there in the vehicle kind of sitting sideways and the RCMP officer was doing his paperwork and he said, ‘Hey, you look like a good candidate for an RCMP member,’ and I kind of looked at him and thought, ‘Yeah right.’ But in my mind it started from there.”
A week later, Grinder applied for the RCMP, and when he was accepted to the force at the age of 18, he was stationed in Regina.
“They made a man out of me,” he says. “From the residential school, from all the abuse that happened to me in the past, the violence, the sexual abuse, spousal abuse, drugs, alcohol, all the violence — quite a few of us were touched in a way where today we’re still damaged, and I was damaged goods when I first started. I was a young punk and they made a man out of me.”
Grinder began dealing with issues that had happened in his past, and dealing with them through counselling with the support of the RCMP.
“They kind of taught me a lot about discipline, how to handle people, talk to people, and that’s where I get a lot of my gifts from,” he says. “I’m proud they did a wonderful job of grooming me for who I am today — the RCMP, my community members, grandparents, uncles and aunts — even at a young age I was given medicine, and today I do healing work with that.”
Grinder spent four months in Regina before moving back to work with the Williams Lake RCMP in 1980.
He worked 14 years in Williams Lake, and another six in Kelowna before retiring early from the RCMP to be with his family back home.
“When I first came back I was doing a lot of different things,” he says.
After his first year back, he decided to run, and was elected, as Tl’etinqox chief for one term.
“I didn’t run a second term,” he says. “I was married at the time and my ex wife said if you run for chief again I’m going to divorce you. She left, the relationship ended, we got a divorce, and that’s when I started working with the people here in the community.”
That translated into a position Grinder held for several years working with the Punky Lake Wilderness Camp Society, and members of the community.
“An elder one time asked me: ‘Where’d you learn all this?’ A lot of it had to do with the RCMP, and for me — I’m a real hands on person, so it was good work.”
By not running for a second term as chief Grinder began focusing his energy on culture, teaching and learning.
One day, members from the Xeni Gwet’in First Nation asked Grinder to do some healing work for them at Nemiah.
“I thought, OK, I’ll accept it,” he says. “And from there I developed more chemistry with the spiritual healing part of things. I learned a lot about it when I was a kid through stories, seeing medicine people doing things.”
At age four, Grinder says he was saved from death by a medicine person.
“That’s when I was given a gift, and that’s the gift I use today.”
His mother and grandparents had taken him to the hospital on two separate occasions in Williams Lake. He was sick. He wasn’t able to eat.
“I couldn’t hold anything down and was really skinny,” he says. “The doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me, but they told my mom if you bring this kid back here one more time we’re calling child welfare on you. You’re not feeding this kid right. But, my grandparents were like, ‘Hey, we’ve got plenty of food on the table here.’”
His grandfather took him to see Margaret Andy, a medicine lady, who worked on Grinder for three straight days, he says.
“I was just drained. I couldn’t even walk. Finally on the third day I could hear all the kids playing outside, and she was working on me, and I was like wet, damp — that’s how I was feeling. She put me on the bed and before she started working on me I could hear they were saying something with my grandpa I couldn’t understand.
“All of a sudden just like that the sweat was gone, that wetness was gone, and they took me back.”
Grinder didn’t know what they were saying at the time, but says he found out years later after a friend encouraged him to pay a visit to another medicine man visiting the Okanagan from Omak, Washington.
“So I went and saw him, gave him tobacco, and he worked on me. He took a couple of things off my back, one thing of my leg. He wasn’t touching me, but you could feel what he was doing.”
He asked Grinder: “How come you’re not dead?”
“He said you should be six feet under with that bad medicine I took off your back. From there, he said: What kind of medicine you got? I was kind of like, ‘Yeah right.’ He said: ‘I can take you there.’”
Grinder says he was taken back from that day, to his time spent with the RCMP, through his high school years, elementary school and to the time he was sick.
“I said: ‘What are those old people saying? That man and that lady.’”
“Andy and uncle Charlie were saying that kid’s going to be working with people down the road. The Omak medicine man said whatever they gave you is very powerful. Use it in a good way. Don’t use it in a bad way, so that’s what I do. I do the best I can to work it, but I still have a big journey ahead, and to teach people.”
Grinder says his healing work is extremely tiring mentally, physically and spiritually. He says it’s common for him to sleep for two or three straight days after working on a person.
“For me it’s not about the money. It’s about helping people out. It’s wonderful work, but it’s hard, and not easy.”
His healing work, three years ago, also translated into a position as the wellness counsellor with Tl’etinqox. He’s also a councillor for the band.
In between his work with the people, Grinder also devotes his time to helping grow the sports community.
Every year, he hosts the annual Cariboo Canucks First Nations Hockey Tournament in Williams Lake, which sees teams, both young and old, travel from throughout the province to compete.
“I always encourage the young kids to do sports, and within our community we’re always trying to develop more sports,” he says. “If we can kill the bad parts — the gangs and the violence — with the sports and the culture — that’s part of my work right there. I’ve seen the benefits keeping kids out of trouble.”
Through his own personal experiences, and witnessing those of others, Grinder says everything has a tendency to come full circle.
This September, he’ll be marrying his partner, Doreen William, who he credits for always supporting him in putting so much of his energy into all of the various avenues he works in.
“It’s like the drum. The drum is round, so is the sun, so is the moon, so is Mother Earth. The alcohol, the drugs, the violence that tries to get in the way is the big fight, but I give the best of my powers for all to get better and that’s through a love of sports, and treating people the way you want to be treated.”