After the treatment she endured as a child Virginia Gilbert had every reason to develop some resentments against non-First Nations people.
Instead she has spent her adult life advocating for peace and harmony among people of all races and beliefs.
“We should all try to get along, try to understand another person’s ways instead of criticizing them –– open that door to understanding with no labels,” Gilbert says.
She says stereotyping hurts everyone.
One of the most hurtful examples of stereotyping for her is when people automatically assume First Nations people are on welfare.
Spread over her entire adult life, Gilbert says she has only had to collect social assistance a few times between jobs, for less than a year in total. “From the time I left school I have always worked,” Virginia says. “It is an awful feeling to be on welfare.”
Virginia was born in the old Williams Lake Hospital, the youngest of 16 children born to Rosie and Andrew Gilbert of Sugar Cane where she grew up and lives today. Two of her siblings died shortly after birth.
Despite their experiences with residential schools, she says her parents were not racist.
“Our mom and dad taught us that we are all the same no matter what colour we were,” Virginia says. “When we made jokes or racist comments about other races my mom and dad would jump right on us reminding us that we are all in the same boat. They had very excellent non-native friends who they did a lot of bartering with.”
Virginia says her mother made beautiful buckskin moccasins and gloves and her dad was a really good rancher and ranch foreman. Together her parents also made fishing nets for barter and sale.
“Growing up we used to come to town once or twice a summer by team and wagon. In those days a 10 cent bottle of pop was a real treat.”
But despite her parents’ teachings, Virginia says there was a period in her childhood and teens when she hated white people and Catholics.
She attended the one-room day school at Sugar Cane from grades 1 to 6 with a Catholic teacher who she says was really mean, ignorant about First Nations culture, and would strap them if they spoke their own language or tried to play their traditional lehal game or sing their songs.
Sundays she said the teacher would come around to their houses and put pressure on families to go to church. She said the teacher was also an alcoholic who held wild parties in the teacherage attached to the school. Students who had to clean the basement would find boxes of whiskey in the closets, she said.
“That’s when I began to start hating non-native people,” Virginia says. “She strapped us for anything, practically nothing.”
Virginia attended St. Joseph’s Mission School for grades 7 and 8 where she met other First Nations children from all over the province, some who were more domineering than others.
The residential school experience further separated her from her culture and family since they were only allowed to come home at Christmas and summer holidays even though they lived just down the road. “I only learned the basics of my own language because we were never allowed to speak it,” Virginia says. “Some evenings in elementary school my mother would take us to our grannie’s and she would tell us stories in our language. Those were awesome times.”
In Grade 9 Virginia started taking the bus to the old Williams Lake Junior Secondary School, but the experience was so overwhelming that she ended up dropping out of school that year. “That was a culture shock,” Virginia says. “I had very low self esteem. If anyone had a criticism I’d go into a shell and I was always very watchful of how non-natives treated us in school. I was very wary of making friends with non-native people. I had a few non-native friends but not very many.”
In her mid-teens Virginia started working as a dish washer at the mission school, but also drinking and partying.
Unfortunately she says her parents also started drinking when she was in her early teens, after a string of tragedies in their family.
Her oldest brother had started drinking and was run over by a train. A sister, who was a very good hunter and trapper, died of double pneumonia after getting too wet and cold while checking a trapline. Another sister died of tuberculosis.
By age 21 Virginia was done with the party lifestyle and had quit drinking. She wanted more out of life than hangovers. When she was about 23 both of her parents died within 12 hours of each other of alcohol poisoning. “When I was a little girl there was no alcohol in our family,” Virginia says. “’It was really devastating.” After those family tragedies, Virginia started helping to raise her nieces and nephews. “When I sobered up I found a nice guy,” Virginia says. “We had good jobs and raised five kids together.”
Her then husband Frank Supernault worked in logging and then as a field worker with Fish Lake Education Cultural Centre.
By the time the old St. Joseph’s Mission School closed in 1980 Virginia had worked her way up to head cook.
After that she took the six-week Nechi alcohol and drug counsellor training in Nanaimo and the Servicing Aboriginal Growth and Empowerment (SAGE) training in Vancouver. Virginia then became a health and culture worker for her band and worked for 10 years as a night attendant at the Nenqayni Treatment Centre.
Through it all she began to take her parents’ early teachings to heart.
“All the hardships I went through just made me stronger to keep an open mind,” Virginia says. “If you keep an open mind and learn about others’ ways you will find it is very interesting. All people have different ways of praying and we have to respect that.”
Weekends and summers she and her husband would take their children around the region fishing, berry picking, swimming and enjoying the outdoors, away from the reserve where there was still a lot of drinking going on.
“We wanted to show them that there was another way to live,” Virginia says.
Through the years they also fostered many children in their home.
“We never closed our doors on anybody. I had a lot of non-native children in my care over the years,” Virginia says. “When my children went to high school in town here they would bring their non-native friends home to eat our deer and moose meat stew and bannock.”
She says they encouraged their children and grandchildren to get their educations, not pay attention to racist or critical remarks, and to enjoy their lives without alcohol or drugs.
Unfortunately, despite their best efforts, Virginia says their middle son started drinking and partying and was murdered in an alcohol-related incident in 2008. It took two months to find his body and the murder has still not been solved.
“It broke my heart,” Virginia says. “There is no closure yet. I just about went back to drinking after that but I thought, no, this is a message to me that alcohol is very destructive for people and families.” She says all nationalities struggle with alcohol and drug addiction problems and she has made it her life’s work to help people find and realize their dreams without alcohol or drugs.
Today, Virginia belongs to an elders drum group which performs at various school and community functions.
She also works with Maggie Ranger at the Women’s Contact Society helping teen girls to develop self-esteem, set goals for themselves, and realize their dreams. When bad things happen Virginia encourages people to: “Take life one day at a time. Tomorrow is another day.”
As a lifelong learner Virginia took a typing and computer course a couple of years ago and now plans to write some of her own stories.
“I love reading,” Virginia says.
In addition to her four surviving children, Virginia enjoys 10 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. She says her children and grandchildren had the opportunity to participate more activities and sports than she and her siblings did and are working in their chosen fields, be it in banking or as a First Nations Fancy Dancer.
“My oldest granddaughter texted me on her cell phone recently: ‘I can smell your pancakes from here.’”