They Called Me Number One by Bev Sellars

The subtitle of this memoir published by Talon Books is “Secrets and Survival at an Indian Residential School”. The forward is by Hemas Kla-Lee-Lee-Kla (Chief Bill Wilson) and the very informative afterward is written by Wendy Wickwire.

Here’s the first paragraph of the Foreword by Bill Wilson:

“In this book, Chief Bev Sellars shines light on one of the darkest periods of They Called Me Number OneCanadian history. To me, the residential schools were horrific violations of humanity comparable to the Holocaust and based on the similarly ridiculous assumption that one race and its society are superior to all others. This wrong-headed thinking is the foundation upon which Department of Indian Affairs policy in Canada is based, and nowhere has this stupidity been expressed more blatantly than in the cesspool of mental, physical, and sexual abuse at the residential schools.”

In her Preface to the book, Bev Sellars writes: “I started writing this book in the early 1990s when our communities first began to explore and deal with the aftermath of the Indian residential schools, in our case, St. Joseph’s Mission in Williams Lake, British Columbia. I quickly changed my mind when a close relative angrily said to me, “I heard you are writing a book. Boy, you better not be writing about me!” This reaction caused me to reconsider making my – our – story public, but I continued putting my thoughts and memories on paper.”

Inspite of discouraging opposition and criticism, Sellars concluded that she had to write the book and share it with others. I am tempted to quote her entire preface here but you can read it for yourself if you have an interest. I would encourage you to read it and think honestly about how it should make us feel as Canadians.  This book can expand our knowledge of our country and teach us to understand why aboriginal Canadians are angry and hopefully contribute to a new respect for the challenges and abuse they experienced in the residential schools.

The author sums up her experience and that of many other Aboriginal people quite clearly: “I read somewhere that everyone is born with the potential for success and it is only through life’s experiences that we develop or destroy that potential. For many Aboriginal people, our most vulnerable and impressionable years, our childhood years, were spent at residential schools. Our mental, emotional, and spiritual growth was extremely stunted because of the way we were treated there.”

Shortly after they arrived at residential school, each child was given a number that would be their identity for the rest of their school years. The priests and nuns never used the childrens’ names. “Ninety or more years after she left the St. Joseph’s Mission school, my [Bev’s]grandmother still remembered her number – 27 – and – 28 – the number assigned to her sister Annie. My [Bev’s] mom remembers her number was 71. Thankfully, our numbers were not tattooed on our skin.”

This book is much more than a memoir of the residential school experience. It is a fascinating family history with six generations shown on a family tree, a valuable map of First Nations Attending St. Joseph’s Mission(Cariboo) Residential School and also a map showing the location of Coqualeetza Indian Tuberculosis Hospital where the author spent some time. In addition there is  a detailed and  inspiring account of the author’s career and educational experience after the years at the residential school including her account of running for and holding the office of chief at the age of 31. She served in this capacity for six years during which time the tribal council began to examine the issues surrounding the residential schools and also took part in a major justice inquiry investigating the relationship between the Caribou-Chilcotin people and the government of British Columbia. She gave the opening remarks at the first National Conference on Residential Schools in Vancouver in June 1991. She earned a law degree from the University of British Columbia and she worked for the B.C. Treaty Commission in Vancouver.

If you know only bits and pieces about the residential school issue this would be a good place to start if you’d like to be better informed. Bev Sellars is someone you will enjoy getting to know.