When Xat’sull Chief Bev Sellars reflects on her childhood she remembers the fear, humiliation and deplorable conditions she was so often forced to endure.
“I wasn’t allowed to be a normal child … to grow and experience things and question things and whatever,” Sellars said.
Sellars spent the majority of her childhood living and attending school at St. Joseph’s Mission, an Indian residential school in Williams Lake, B.C. As was the case for many First Nations children, Sellers was taken from her home and was legally required to attend a residential school.
“We couldn’t say anything, we couldn’t think for ourselves, we weren’t allowed to think for ourselves and that was just awful,” Sellars said. “We were programmed to self-destruct, we weren’t programmed to succeed.”
Beginning in the 1870s, the federal government began establishing residential schools for First Nations children, which were run by various churches. At the time, the goal of the Department of Indian Affairs was to educate and reform First Nations children to fit with mainstream Canadian society. Under the direction of the federal government, thousands of children were forcibly removed from their homes and relocated to schools, often hours away from their home.
While the schools were intended to help First Nations students transition into a modern Canadian society, the majority of children were subjected to mental, physical and sexual abuse.
“They controlled us with fear and the strap,” Sellars said. “We were so scared to do anything. For little kids, always being threatened with the strap, that has a traumatic effect on you. They treated us like we weren’t human.”
Sellers, now turned author, will be speaking about her recently published book, They Called Me Number 1: Secrets and Survival at an Indian Residential School, at the Harbourfront Library in Nanaimo on Thursday (Feb. 20).
“It’s very difficult. Some will never talk about their experiences there. I think as difficult as it is, those stories need to be out there and I hope my book will help others find their voice,” Sellers said. “Some people will take their stories to the grave with them. I think aboriginal people are starting to find the voice and … this history is not just aboriginal history, this is Canadian history.”
They Called Me Number 1: Secrets and Survival at an Indian Residential School documents the stories of three generation of women who were forced to attend government established Indian residential schools. Sellars explained that her book has become a point of conversation for many First Nations families.
“I think it has helped them to understand why there is so much dysfunction with their older relatives and these are conversations long overdue,” Sellars said.
In 2008 the Federal government formally apologized to the First Nations people for the actions of previous governments and religious institutions. The government also established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to study the legacy of the residential schools.
After Sellers graduated high school she attended Cariboo College (Now Thompson Rivers University) in Kamloops and eventually went on to attend the University of British Columbia and University of Victoria. In 1987, Sellers was elected Chief of the Xat’sull First Nation.
“I wanted my children to have a better life than I did and I knew that for that to happen I needed to get an education and so I had to step off the reserve to do that,” she said.
“There isn’t an experience that I’ve had in my life that would compare to the way that I felt when I knew I was going home from the school,” Sellars added.