Looking Out from Number One
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 Father 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 Sellars at 13 years old.
In [Bev Sellars’s memoir] 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.
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.”
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.
Bev is a University of Victoria Alumni and holds a J.D. from the University of British Columbia. She is now Chief of the Xat-sull (Soda Creek) band near Williams Lake, B.C.
For an assessment of the long-term effects of trauma, she turns to history, citing a report on the effect of years of bubonic plagues and social disruptions in Medieval Europe. It estimates that social recovery and cultural healing generally start forty years after the traumatic events end. Aboriginal communities had their populations wiped out by imported diseases, they suffered expulsion from their homelands, loss of economic self-sufficiency and the forced abduction and brainwashing of their children. In Sellars’case alone, she is a third generation survivor of St. Joseph’s Mission.
When St. Joseph’s closed in the 1980s, former students descended on the building and reduced it to rubble. If only the destruction of all the lives that took place there could have been wiped out so swiftly.
The complete feature is published here