Bev Sellars has lived through a lifetime of cultural injustice.
As an author, historian and leader in B.C.’s indigenous community, her words and thoughts are meant to enlighten people about the injustice suffered by First Nations’ people. She wants people to understand the damage caused to their culture and the lack of reverence paid to the environment—as her ancestors did for centuries—before the first Europeans began to arrive in North America.
What they discovered was not a new land, as our history books so often tell us, but a land occupied by indigenous people, numbering from 90 to 112 million, comprised of different tribes that lived in a territory stretching from the North Pole to the tip of South America.
Much of that history of the indigenous culture was passed down orally from generation to generation by elders, a cultural encyclopedia of knowledge and tradition that was largely denigrated and stampeded over by the onslaught of newly arriving immigrants and the governments that resulted, said Sellars.
“Our people respected the land and our economy was based around fish, the animals and the plants in our wilderness,” she said. “We developed an intimate knowledge of the land that enabled us to have thriving communities.
“Our culture was one of sharing. We don’t have a word for ‘please’ in our language. Yes there were tribal wars so I’m not saying it was utopia, but through the good times and bad, we shared with and looked after one another.”
Sellars shared her thoughts about the history of First Nations’ people in B.C. at a talk she gave at Okanagan College earlier this week, invited to speak by the Federation of Post-Secondary Educators.
Sellars has written two books, They Called Me Number One, a memoir of her childhood experience in the Indian residential school system and its effects on three generations of women in her family, and Price Paid: The First Fight For First Nations Survival, a look at the history of indigenous rights in Canada from an indigenous perspective.
While she says writing came to her more by necessity than choice, her books have received numerous literary awards and made her a popular keynote speaker across North America and Europe.
She also served as chief of the Xat’sull (Soda Creek) First Nation near Williams Lake for 12 years and is currently the chair of First Nations Women Advocating Responsible Mining.
Sellars talked about how she grew up in an environment where her people were referred to as lazy, stupid, drunks and freeloaders.
“I grew up among racism and I didn’t know how to respond to it back then,” she said.
But she overcame that cultural adversity to get post-secondary degrees in history and law, and as a writer and chief committed herself to fight for justice for her people.
“Ignorance leads to racism. It’s important to not just judge people by what you see and hear, but also to understand the background behind who they are and where they come from,” Sellars said.
“Canadian history is not accurate in how it portrays aboriginal people, as our history and culture have been overlooked and lost.”
Sellars said her grandmother told her the newcomers to their territories were welcomed by First Nations, and shown how to survive and live in the wilderness.
“But ours was an economy of sharing, of only taking what you need. The European system of money and wealth was foreign to us,” said Sellars.
The end result was settlers arriving by the thousands, federal and provincial governments that abandoned a treaty negotiation process, government and land owners attempting to destroy their culture and assimilate First Nations into western ideals, and the onslaught of disease.
“It is estimated that 75 to 95 per cent of aboriginal people died from diseases in the new world, about 67 million to more than 100 million people lost. In some cases, aboriginal people were sold blankets infected with smallpox to intentionally kill us off. Our culture was destroyed by the loss of our people.”
Protecting natural resources is an issue that Sellars has taken on in recent years, a response to what she calls exploitive extraction of our environment.
Where the Fraser River was once a thriving fishing ground for her people, today she says it is an abused and mismanaged resource where the quality and numbers of salmon has been in steady and unpredictable decline.
“I have not had a fish out of the Fraser River in 15 years. We started to see scarring on their bodies and worms inside when you cut them open, concentrations of heavy metals started showing up in salmon eggs,” she said.
“We raised our concerns to the Department of Fisheries back then but our concerns were dismissed.”
Sellars said the fish and the water were two sacred elements of aboriginal life that have been endangered. “The promise of riches has turned into the destruction of our lands; the sacredness of water which we all need to survive is being destroyed.”
The topic of mining is one that hit home for Sellars, as the Mount Polley mine disaster occurred in August 2014 in the Cariboo region of the province.
It began with a breach of the Imperial Metals-owned Mount Polley copper and gold mine tailings pond, releasing 24 million cubic metres of mine waste and water into nearby lakes and rivers.
The tailing pond collapse dumped millions of cubic metres of mine waste in Quesnel Lake and clogged salmon-bearing streams and rivers with waste slurry and fallen trees.
As chief of the nearby Xat’sull band, she was invited to be part of the post-mine cleanup organizing effort—but only if she signed a confidentiality agreement.
“I refused to do that. To this day there have been no charges, no fines and the mine is open and it’s business as usual,” she said.
“The contamination mess left behind will be left to our grandchildren to deal with and everyone else will leave…It just seems when money comes into play, all common sense goes out the window.”
Sellars said while she has acquired an appreciation for what immigrants sacrificed to come to North America, to uproot their families from their homeland in search of a new life, she says that is not the story of indigenous people.
“We don’t have a homeland to go back to. This is our land,” she said.
And while the First Nations pursue their land claims issues in the courts, she feels the threat of control over their own territories is something that industry and government leaders are afraid to address.
“I have lost faith in our governments finding any true reconciliation for what happened to our territories. It is about money and control for them,” Sellars said.
“My hope rests with individuals who speak up, who learn about the real history of our culture, and lead Canada to one day correct the injustices done to our people.
“If there is to be a future for aboriginal people, we need to become a necessary and contributing part of Canadian society.”
Sellars said she was surprised to learn during a speaking engagement in Germany how that country teaches their students about the persecution of the Jews leading up to and during the Second World War.
“Every kid in school learns about the Holocaust, and the same could be done in Canada to teach about the true history of indigenous peoples and to better understand our journey.
“Shaping the attitude of future generations starts with what we teach the little kids. We can’t truly reconcile with one another if we don’t understand one another.”
For a story on how B.C. is beginning to teach kids about First Nations history, see page A4.