Seeing First Nations children and youth of today strong and healthy while engaging in cultural activities such as drumming and dancing is what keeps former Esk’etemc First Nation chief Charlene Belleau going.
The chair of the First Nations Health Council and grandmother of two remains a catalyst for change.
“In all of my work, whether it was in community, or whether it was provincially or nationally, health has always been a priority for me,” Belleau, 69, said from her home in Williams Lake.
“To me, that comes from growing up in our communities where issues like residential school and impacts of institutionalization, sexual abuse and violence were at the forefront.”
After acknowledging alcohol abuse as a symptom of trauma, the Esk’etemc First Nation, once known as the “Alcohol Lake Band”, became an international inspiration after the community began a journey towards wellness which was told in the 1985 film “The Honour of All: The Story of Alkali Lake.”
For the past several decades Belleau has advocated for the stories of residential school survivors to be told, and in October 2017 was recognized by the Governor General of Canada with a Meritorious Service Cross for her advocacy for improved health and social programs, and leadership in the campaign to end violence against women.
Belleau herself had attended the notorious St Joseph’s Mission residential school located in the San Jose Valley, a few miles from the head of Williams Lake, near the Williams Lake First Nation community of Sugar Cane.
“It’s hard for people to understand how you could be so strong from something so traumatic, but it comes from a place of being able to acknowledge that this has happened,” she said, noting she was a childhood victim of sexual abuse.
“Yes, there were perpetrators, there was violence, but I’m just choosing not to allow that to affect me for the rest of my life, and I’m going to heal from that and move on.”
In 1998 Belleau was among the Esk’etemc First Nation community members, leaders, elders and women to participate in a healing circle at Alkali Lake between the disgraced Roman Catholic bishop, Hubert O’Connor, who was charged with sex crimes, and his accuser.
According to an archived news release by the B.C. Ministry of Attorney General Belleau said the healing circle allowed victims to be in control while having the opportunity to hold O’Connor accountable in their own territory and on their own terms after years of the painful court process.
“Not resolving that kind of historical abuse and trauma whether it be from residential school or abuse and violence within the community to me those are the root causes of why we have high suicide rates, MMIWG, mental health problems, high incarceration rates and our children are in care,” Belleau now said.
“We need to heal and we need to be healthy, and we’re getting there.”
Belleau has also helped lead searches for missing Indigenous people across B.C. including Caitlin Potts whose family had last heard from her in February 2016 from Enderby, and Natasha Montgomery who was one of four women murdered by convicted serial killer Cody Legebokoff. Late last year Belleau assisted with organizing a search for Randolph Quilt before his remains were found west of Williams Lake off Highway 20 near Hanceville.
As she continues to champion for accessible equitable healthcare for First Nations across the province, Belleau believes there is opportunity through B.C. having become the first jurisdiction in the country to pass legislation implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).
“To me, it is important to keep myself in balance,” she said of traditional ceremonies, allowing her to relax her mind, body and spirit.
“That I don’t just work and not take care of myself because I’ve been doing this kind of heavy work for all of my life and it has its means.”