Left: Bev Sellars age 13, a year after she left St. Joseph’s Mission School. Right: A pair of moccasins that were symbolically placed into the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s bentwood box. (Photos courtesy Bev Sellars, Canadian Museum for Human Rights)
When I first heard about the commission in 2008, I wanted to be a part of it. I knew the importance of getting this part of the country’s history out to Canadians, many of whom did not understand or know what had happened in these schools.
I applied to become one of the commission’s commissioners and was unsuccessful, but I kept my ear to the ground on what was happening. I wondered what the public reaction to the commission would be once it started its work. I was wary because my own experience with publicity about residential schools had not been a good one.
In 1987, during my first term as one of the chiefs of British Columbia’s Cariboo Tribal Council (now known as the Northern Shuswap Tribal Council), we were doing work on why the four First Nations that make up our community had so many social problems, such as family breakdown, substance abuse and suicide. At the time, we didn’t realize how traumatic events could leave a lasting impression. Once we started to examine these problems closely, though, it seemed that all roads led back to the residential schools. With that in mind, our council asked Roland Chrisjohn, at the time an associate professor of psychology at the University of Guelph, to conduct a study of former residential school students. The results, which were outlined in a 1991 Canadian Journal of Native Education article titled “Faith Misplaced: Lasting Effects of Abuse in a First Nations Community,” helped make sense of the social conditions we were facing. It was then that we started to look for ways to overcome the destructive conditioning we had received at residential schools.
Because the tribal council, Chrisjohn and the University of Guelph had issued a news release about the study, the community started to garner media attention. Reluctantly, I stepped forward to act as the council’s spokesperson on the study. Suddenly, I found myself on the front page of national newspapers and being interviewed by television crews. The CBC’s Fifth Estate did a documentary on St. Joseph’s Mission School. It was overwhelming at the time, but I answered questions and was very open and honest about what had happened — how children were separated from their parents and community, how we were required to do physical labour, how we endured physical and mental abuse at the hands of school staff, how we were indoctrinated in foreign religious beliefs.
It was during this period that I started to receive hate mail. How dare we accuse the churches of these acts? How dare we not be thankful that we received an education from the schools? How dare we complain after all that Canada does for us? I was absolutely horrified to receive these letters, and I threw them into my wood stove, hoping the extremely ugly thoughts they contained would disappear along with the paper they were written on. I did not receive one letter of support or empathy.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. When my non-Indigenous friend, Elizabeth Furniss, published her book Victims of Benevolence: The Dark Legacy of the Williams Lake Residential School in 1995, I was shocked when she told me that that no one in Williams Lake would agree to sell the book in their store. In 1994 or 1995, the subject of residential schools was raised in one of my university history classes. A young white woman was visibly shaken when the subject was brought up. She insisted that the churches would not commit the acts that had occurred in the schools. While she did not say it outright, she indicated that she believed these were lies being told about the churches. At the time, I was still unable to speak about the abuses, so I remained silent.
I was amazed that the commission’s 2013 Vancouver event was being held at the Pacific National Exhibition grounds, a venue that seemed unnecessarily huge. I honestly didn’t believe that anyone but former residential school students and their families would be interested in attending.
But as I walked around the grounds, I saw so many people, most of them non-Indigenous. During the event, the filmmaker Lisa Jackson was premiering Hidden Legacies, her documentary about how residential schools continue to affect the generation of Indigenous children who did not attend the schools. My daughter, Jacinda Mack, and I are in the film and had been invited to speak after the screening. There must have been 2,500 people in the room, including a busload of students who had come all the way from Oregon, and again most of them were non-Indigenous. Question after question was asked after we spoke, and I think people were upset when scheduling dictated that the session finally had to be closed. I was so pleased with the turnout and the diversity of the people who attended the screening and question-and-answer session.
Yet despite being glad that events such as the one in Vancouver were taking place, being there still brought home to me the injustice of the residential school system.