Chief Bev Sellars wins Ryga Award
Bev Sellars, chief of the Xat’sull (Soda Creek) First Nation in Williams Lake, has won the 2014 George Ryga Award for Social Awareness for her book They Called Me Number One: Secrets and Survival at an Indian Residential School (Talonbooks 2013).
April 04th, 2014
It wasn’t planned—but the memoir recounting abuse at the St. Joseph’s Residential School was released coincidentally with the proceedings of the Truth & Reconciliation hearings and events that were held around the Lower Mainland, September 18-21.
Initiated by The George Ryga Society, BC BookWorld and Okanagan College, the annual Ryga Award has been presented since 2003 by Okanagan College to a B.C. writer who has achieved an outstanding degree of social awareness in a new book published in the preceding calendar year.
“What is impressive about Bev Sellars,” says historian Jean Barman, “is that her book is only the tip of the iceberg that is her life.” Barman recalls she once wrote a prize-winning article sparked by watching Bev Sellars in the courtroom inspiring a group of indigenous women to stand tall and be their own persons.
At age five, Bev Sellars was isolated for two years at the Coqualeetza Indian Turberculosis Hospital in Sardis, British Columbia, nearly six hours’ drive from home. She later endured far-worse isolation from her family for ten months each year in the notorious St. Joseph’s Residential School in Williams Lake where both her grandmother and mother had been incarcerated before her. Sellars was forced to attend the Catholic-run school in the 1960s when the principal was Hubert O’Connor. As Bishop O’Connor, he was convicted in 1996 of committing rape and indecent assault on two young aboriginal women during his time as a priest at St. Joseph’s.
Bev Sellar’s memoir They Called Me Number One: Secrets and Survival at an Indian Residential School describes St. Joseph’s and O’Connor, as well as the hunger, forced labour and beatings with a leather strap that were common in the school. Her lifelong path towards healing has culminated in the first book to be written by someone who survived St. Joseph’s school.
Sellars was forced to attend the Catholic-run school in the 1960s when the principal was Hubert O’Connor. As Bishop O’Connor, he was convicted in 1996 of committing rape and indecent assault on two young aboriginal women during his time as a priest at St. Joseph’s.
“Soon after we arrived at residential school,” she writes, “we were given a number that would become our identity. I became Number 1 on the girls’ side. Although the other kids all continued to call me by name, ‘Bev Sellars’ ceased to exist for most of the nuns, priests and staff. Instead they would say, ‘Number 1, come here’ or ‘I want these girls in my office; Numbers 1, 14, 72 and 105’ or ‘Number 1, say the second decade of the rosary.’
“Ninety or more years after she left St. Joseph’s Mission, my grandmother still remembered her number — 27 — and 28 — the number assigned to her sister, Annie. My mom remembers her number was 71. Thankfully, our numbers were not tattooed on our skin.”
Bev Sellars has been chief of the Xat’sull (Soda Creek) First Nation in Williams Lake, British Columbia since 1987. The former adviser for the B.C. Treaty Commission has a history degree from the University of Victoria and a law degree from the University of British Columbia.
Here are portions of a review of Sellars’ Ryga Award-winning book by Joan Givner, who previously reviewed the new UBC Press biography of First Nations matriarch Jane Cook of Alert Bay, Standing Up with Ga’axsta’las; Jane Constance Cook and the Politics of Memory, Church, and Custom by Leslie A. Robertson and Kwagu’l Gixsam Clan…
In They Called Me Number One, we learn that children taken from their parents and forced to attend St Joseph’s Mission in the Cariboo, some as young as five years old, were doused with DDT, a carcinogenic pesticide especially dangerous in the pre-puberty years. This spraying with a toxic chemical is an apt metaphor for the poisonous effect of the deprivations, beatings and rapes inflicted on Aboriginal, Inuit and Metis children in residential schools during their formative years.
Chief Bev Sellars bears witness to the atrocities of the residential schools, drawing on her training as a historian and a lawyer, but most of all on the authority of her personal experience. She describes life at the mission from the moment she and others were rounded up by priests, some loaded into cattle trucks, and delivered to their prison.
On arrival, they were identified by numbers rather than names, their language and customs outlawed, all vestiges of racial and personal identity obliterated. These were replaced by indoctrination into the rituals of the Catholic Church. They learned Latin by following the Catholic mass, although the meaning was not explained. They prayed so long and often, kneeling on hard floors, that some sustained permanent damage. Not surprisingly, Sellars eventually lost all respect for organized religion, coming to see it as tool by which men in power exerted control over people.
The frequent bedwetting, symptomatic of the children’s terror, was, like every other infraction except breathing, punishable by flogging with a leather strap cut from a conveyor belt. Since a feature of oppressive regimes is their ability to cause division and enmity among their victims, bullying and ridicule added to the misery. Fights were common.
Sellars notes that “in a world where compassion was almost non-existent, we remembered even the smallest bit of kindness.” The instances of kindness often came from the lay workers employed at the institution. One hero was Pat Joyce, hired as head cook in 1966. Previously the children had watched and smelled good food rolled into the nuns’ and priests’ dining room, while they were served “garbage” that lead to outbreaks of food poisoning. After Joyce insisted on serving the same food to everyone, the children looked forward to mealtimes. The nuns, meanwhile, took the opportunity to preach that “gluttony is a sin.”
When Sellars injured herself in the playroom and was unable to move, the nuns ordered two girls to carry her to the dormitory. Later as she cried out in pain on her way to the bathroom, it was a maintenance man, Bill O’ Donovan, who ran to notify Father O’ Connor, the principal. He summoned an ambulance to take her to the hospital. Long afterwards when O’ Connor, then a bishop, was charged with rape and indecent assault, this same Bill O’ Donovan came forward to testify against him on behalf of the students.
Teachers, employed from outside the order, also provided solace. One kept books in the cloakroom to lend to the students. Another read daily chapters from Rin Tin Tin, The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. A Miss Helen from Vancouver told stories of going to school from home and doing homework in her own room. “It was like reading a book. She took you to a place where good things happened.” Sadly, the good teachers did not stay long.
There were always some brave children who were driven by desperation to run away, risking sadistic punishments when they were caught. Girls had their heads shaved, boys had to wear girls’ dresses and there was the ritual flogging in front of the other students.
The saddest story in the book involves Sellars’ brother, Bobby, who hid away in a cabin to avoid going back to school in September. She remembers watching him brought in after he was captured, his head hung down. In retrospect, she realizes that she was witnessing a broken spirit. He died at the age of eighteen, found in a creek at the bottom of a cliff. Years later, she discovered from reading a study of residential schools, that he had been sexually abused at the mission. Only one of many destroyed lives.
While the main narrative makes a strong personal impact, the notes to each chapter add important legal and historical information. Bev Sellars describes the Commission of Inquiry on the Adequacy of Compensation ($1.6 million) paid to Donald Marshall Jr., the Mi’maq Indian, wrongly accused and jailed for eleven years. Noting its relevance to the compensation paid for nine years of forced imprisonment in a residential school, she quotes Professor H. Archibald Kaiser’s conclusions about the social and psychological effects of such imprisonment:
“The longer this distorting experience of prison goes on, the less likely a person can ever be whole again. Especially for the individual imprisoned as a youth, the chances of eventual happy integration into t(e community must be very slim.