If telling the truth is brave, that’s a sad statement on today’s society, said Xatśūll Chief Bev Sellars at the St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School reunion held over the long weekend at the Williams Lake Indian Band Pow Wow grounds.
Sellars has recently had a book published by Talonbooks, titled They Called Me Number One, that features stories of herself and other students who attended the residential school.
“We need to get this out there. People have swept it under the carpet for too long,” she said.
Holding up a copy of the book, with a cover that features a photograph of her two granddaughters, Sellars said if residential schools were still in existence the older one would have already spent four years there. The younger one would have spent two years there.
“I also have a grandson who just turned 16 years old at the beginning of May. I think about him, my granddaughters, and the grandchildren of all of us. He would have been leaving the school by now and been well on his way to a life of alcohol and drugs to try and avoid the memories that he would have had from that place,” Sellars said.
Thankfully her grandson’s well-adjusted and will go on to lead a productive life, she added.
In the book, Sellars writes about Doreen Johnson, who was her protector at the mission.
“The first week I was there I was so grateful for Doreen because she was tough. She says now that she was a bully but for me personally I was grateful she was a bully because if anybody wanted to pick on me they had to go through Doreen so they left me alone.”
Sellars said she began writing stories before she planned to write a book.
“Connecting the dots of what happened there and how it affected me in later life meant I ended up with a big stack of little stories. I showed them to my husband Bill and he was absolutely stunned at what I had written.”
Her husband was in upfront Aboriginal politics for almost 40 years, yet he had no idea what went on, even though both of his parents went to residential school in Alert Bay.
“I could understand how he didn’t know because that was the same for me. My grandmother went to the schools, my mom went to the schools, and I went to the schools,” Sellars explained. “We talked about it amongst ourselves, but I didn’t talk to my kids about it.”
It’s the same for a lot of the people who went there, they didn’t talk about it to the younger generation.
“When I started writing, it really bothered me. I started thinking we’re all going to die and the younger generation is not going to be able to understand why there’s so much disfunction in the communities.”
As she wrote she was thinking about her family mostly, her brothers and sisters, uncles, grandparents, and parents.
“It turned into this book and it probably wouldn’t have happened so quickly if my brother Chuck hadn’t given me some money. I had all these stories and they just rambled on, but it didn’t read like a book.”
With the money from her brother, Sellars hired an editor from Kamloops.
“I was going to self-publish because I was told in order to get it published it would take two to three years if I was lucky. I wasn’t willing to do that so I asked a former university professor of mine to do a short blurb for the back of the book.”
When the professor received the manuscript she encouraged Sellars to go through a publisher and put her in touch with Talonbooks.
Talonbooks president and CEO Kevin Williams, after reading the manuscript, contacted Sellars in one week and said they would publish the book and were going to make it the lead book for Talonbooks’ spring releases.
“In talking to others who read they book they say, that’s me. That’s my story. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Canada or the U.S. and even though this is my personal story, it could be so many of our personal stories.”
Sellars is finding solace that people are finding her book helpful.
“It took them back to the residential school and all of that, but it also helped them heal. The greatest thing I heard about this book is that one non-Native lady who read it said she was going to give it to her daughter. Her daughter has some social problems and she said this book can help her daughter.”
It’s not just Aboriginal people who go through problems, Sellars said, adding she’s glad it can help non-Aboriginal people too.
Proceeds from the sale of The Called Me Number One will go toward a society Sellars is starting to acknowledge the contributions made by Aboriginal people around the world.
“The general population and a lot of us don’t know about it because it was left out of the history books. That’s my next project. It’s part of the deprogramming. I say that Aboriginal people have to be deprogrammed from the destructive teachings that we were taught.”
She hopes Aboriginal contributions will become common knowledge, she added.
“I’ve done my duty and I tell people now it’s time for them to write their stories. There are so many more stories that need to be written. If people don’t want to make their stories public, then throw them in the fire, but get them out.”
It becomes easier, she added.
“When I first started talking about it in public I would break down all the time, but it does become easier, I assure you. The world needs to know about our Canadian history.”