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Posted: Wednesday July 17, 2013
Toward Justice: A Review of They Called Me Number One

Bev Sellars, They Called Me Number One: Secrets and Survival at an Indian Residential School (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2013), $19.95

In this full-length memoir, Bev Sellars weaves her family history together with her experiences growing up in the interior of British Columbia in the 1950s and ’60s. Sellars recounts in an uninhibited voice some of the formative events of her youth: her twenty-month stay at the Coqualeetza Indian Hospital in Sardis and, centrally, her attendance of St. Joseph’s Indian Residential School near Williams Lake in the 1960s. Although a large portion of the memoir is focused on St. Joseph’s, a few chapters are devoted to telling the story of the author’s healing journey post-residential school: attending university, developing her political awareness, and becoming a leader in her own community. Throughout, Sellars succeeds at invoking a powerful sense of respect and admiration for her parents, grandparents, siblings, and relatives who have endured much pain in their lives as a result of the residential schools and official and unofficial racism. Her grandchildren grace the cover of the book, and it is to them and all those families who experienced the residential schools in Canada, the U.S., and Australia, who she dedicates her work.

Sellars’s memoir is a welcome addition to the expanding genre of published works that feature native peoples’ histories and testimonies of Indian Residential Schools. In recent years, works by Agnes Jack, Agnes Grant, Terry Glavin, and Celia Haig-Brown have sought to put native peoples’ experiences of residential schools front and centre in a broader effort toward political and economic justice in British Columbia and Canada. These works have complemented the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s mandate to promote understanding and reconciliation between native and non-native peoples through the gathering of testimony from residential school survivors.

Sellars’s memoir offers a unique contribution to this effort by showing how the inculcation of obedience to white authority in Residential Schools has hindered aboriginal peoples’ efforts to articulate their political grievances. She remembers vividly how students who disobeyed white authority figures at St. Joseph’s in the slightest of ways (such as sitting back on one’s heels when praying for long periods of time) were subject to cruel and excessive beatings. Students learned to be like “little robots” and developed a servile and passive attitude towards the schools’ white authority figures. Sellars reveals that for many years post-residential school, she could never contradict, correct or otherwise stand up to a white person, even in times when these actions would have been entirely appropriate. Sellars’s story is a testament to how the schools were a calculated attempt to politically pacify native peoples.

The memoir manages to weave these complex political themes into an emotional and highly personal narrative of suffering, pain, loss, and ultimately individual and communal overcoming. Sellars is a talented storyteller – in each chapter she skilfully layers on her recollections, gradually building toward a moment where she delivers a final memory or insight in a laconic and impactful fashion that seems to sum everything up perfectly. These emotionally charged moments in the narrative are arresting: the kind that make you fall out of the book momentarily in a need to digest, reflect, and feel the impact of what Sellars and her family have experienced. One chapter ends with Sellars recalling how after leaving residential school she was “scared of closed areas, and elevators especially freaked me out. I was scared of heights and being alone. Migraine headaches were a constant companion. I enjoyed the feeling of being hungry and at one point was very skinny, even borderline anorexic. In a nutshell, I was emotionally and socially crippled in my ability to deal with the world.” This honest and blunt delivery characterizes the entire memoir.

They Called Me Number One is an intimate, heartbreaking, and ultimately hopeful act of truth telling about residential schools in Canada. Aboriginal people who have attended the schools will identify with Sellars’s experiences and find inspiration in her ability to face the pain and suffering instilled in her rather than numb it. Non-aboriginal readers, if they open their hearts and minds, will be transformed by the life experiences and powerful narrative voice of Bev Sellars.

Eric Wright, M.A. History
University of British Columbia
Twitter: @ericnwright