Matriarch Elsie Paul tells it like it was
“The ocean was their fridge. You know, you want fresh fish, you’re going to go out there and get a fresh fish. You want clams, you’re going to go down the beach and dig clams.”
September 29th, 2014
Elsie Paul links the free-roaming hunting & gathering lifestyle that her ancestors knew to her cell-phone toting grandchildren – the very ones who will benefit from a treaty, ratified in 2012, that returns some of their traditional territory to them.
For more than eight decades Elsie Paul has lived on a part of the B.C. coast just north of Powell River that few people visit. It’s called Sliammon and that word itself is an English bastardization of her people’s language because they couldn’t pronounce it properly.
Elsie Paul was raised by her grandparents who taught her the Sliammon language and she is one of the last surviving mother-tongue speakers. Her grandparents also taught her their ways and she shares that knowledge in her memoir Written as I Remember It (UBC Press, $34.95). Other than a few chapters contributed by others, the book is written exactly as Elsie Paul spoke the words. It’s a warm and engaging read, in turns celebratory and fun, other times tragic and sad.
Shortly after she was born in 1931, Elsie Paul’s parents moved to Vancouver Island but they already had two small children. Paul’s grandmother adopted her, which was not unusual in First Nation communities.
“She told my mother, ‘I’m gonna keep the baby. Your hands are full with these two small babies.’ And besides, my grandmother had lost her youngest daughter with that residential school experience that we have all heard and know about,” remembers Paul who recounts the tragic story of her grandparents having to go by canoe to pick up their near death ten year-old daughter from a Sechelt church-run institution. How the little girl got so sick, no one knew, but she had only been at the residential school for a few months.
Elsie Paul flourished in the loving and eventful ways of her grandparents as they moved around their territory seeking food. They travelled often to seasonal camps and wood cabins (shared by all Sliammon and whoever else might be in the area with the permission of the Sliammon) to harvest and hunt. Salmon, cod, other fish, clams, oysters, herring roe, ducks, deer, mountain goats and a variety of berries, shoots and roots were their fare. “People just lived everywhere in nature.”
Their main food came from the ocean. “The ocean was their fridge. You know, you want fresh fish, you’re going to go out there and get a fresh fish. You want clams, you’re going to go down the beach and dig clams.”
There were few to no roads or automobiles then. “My grandfather had this huge dugout canoe…And he used it a lot. Just going out fishing in front of the village, or travelling further up the coast. It was our vehicle.”
Entertainment in Elsie Paul’s early life included gatherings at a small dance hall at which some Sliammon played musical instruments like accordions and guitars. There were no chairs, only benches lining the walls. Everyone brought their own cups for the tea that was served with sandwiches. Children carried pillow cases (plastic bags had yet to be invented) to the hall to be filled with oranges and apples to take home. Occasionally there would be marching band competitions in the Sliammon village during special days or sporting events such as canoe racing and bone games.
But mostly days were filled finding and preparing food. Elsie Paul’s grandmother would get her up at dawn. “Doesn’t matter whether it was winter or summer, ‘It’s getting daylight – you get up now.’ So we had long, busy days. The people didn’t sleep in….Our lives were very scheduled, very structured.”
Much time was spent smoking fish, clams, ducks and deer meat for winter provisions. “A lot of food was cooked in a pit. Like it’s not barbecued but it’s covered and cooked over hot rocks, so it steams and cooks under all this cover….It’s almost like a slow cooker. Once that part is done you can smoke it in the smokehouse. And dry it.”
Trading was done between other First Nation communities and with European neighbours. Cash was earned by selling baskets made by Elsie Paul’s grandmother, or items her grandfather harvested such as mink and otter furs. When she was a teenager there was part-time work in canneries throughout B.C. or travelling to places like Chilliwack to pick berries for commercial growers.
Many of Elsie Paul’s Sliammon teachings were delivered in the form of legends and stories. “In the winter months when the darkness came early and you’d sit by the open fire or by the stove, and the grandparents or your parents tell stories – legends. And that was so entertaining. And those legends always had a moral to the story. So that was your classroom.”
In 1950, at the age of 18, Elsie married William Dave Paul, whose family had transferred to Sliammon. He worked at remote logging camps and came home on weekends.
Their first home was a shell of a house. “There was no inside plumbing. There’s no running water. It was called a two room and a path. [Chuckles] Yeah, in those days we just had outhouses around here.”
It wasn’t long before indoor plumbing, electricity and cupboards were added. Elsie Paul already had a child when she moved into her first home. Eight more children followed and extra rooms were added to the little structure.
When her husband wasn’t working Elsie Paul picked up odd jobs: first at an oyster plant, then later at Walnut Lodge (a rooming house in Powell River for mill workers) and at the hospital in housekeeping. When the Sliammon Band took over administration of their social service department in 1972, Elsie Paul was asked to fill that role because she was fluent in the language and could communicate with the elders. “I didn’t have any training but was told, ‘You got the ability. You can do it. Just follow the policy.’”
Elsie Paul suffered tragedies when two of her children died before they reached adulthood, one as a baby to illness and the other as a teen in a car accident. One of her three sons died in adulthood and she also lost her hard-working husband too early. He died in 1977 at the age of forty-five of heart failure.
Elsie Paul continued working for social services for 24 years, during which time she got her high school upgrading at Malaspina College when it opened in Powell River and later attended UBC in Vancouver to get her registered social work certificate. She eventually retired and was later elected to her band Council. Even when she retired in 1999, Elsie Paul continued to do community work and teach part-time at the local Malaspina College. She had to be convinced to take on the latter role. It was recognition of her abilities and knowledge of Sliammon history. “I guess it takes other people to tell you what you’re worth,” she says in her book.
In 2010, Elsie Paul received an honorary doctor of letters from Vancouver Island University for her life and career in service to others and dedication to supporting First Nations well-being.
Her book comes at a critical time for the Sliammon as they look to the future and their new treaty. “All of the things that I remember growing up that our people did is all gone… When I talk about the things we did, my grandchildren don’t understand what I’m talking about. It’s so different for them… I support education. It’s very important. The tools that our children need for the future. To get by, to survive in this world. But at the same time, I stress the importance of remembering who you are, where you came from, and our culture and how rich it was. It’s not that we’re gonna go back there and want to live the way our ancestors lived. But to look at that and say, ‘I’m from a rich culture.’”