WHEN the First National Conference on Residential Schools convened in 1991 in Vancouver, the opening address was delivered by the Chief of Xat'Sull (Soda Creek) First Nation, Bev Sellars. She described how she and the other children at the residential school at Williams Lake, B.C. were treated "like dirt" by the white priests and nuns, ridiculed, and programmed "like robots" to believe that they belonged "to a weak, defective race."
For Sellars, this wasn't an education; it was instead, "training for self-destruction."
A lawyer who at one time worked with the B.C. Treaty Commission, Sellars here recounts in this frank, angry and defiant memoir the full story of her own dehumanizing programming at the school in the 1960s, and how she narrowly avoided self-destruction herself.
While the tragic history of Canada's arrogantly racist experiment in cultural genocide has been documented in such major works as J.R. Miller's Shingwauk's Vision (1996) and A National Crime by John Milloy (1999), Sellars' book joins a smaller but growing body of residential school autobiographies such as Basil Johnston's Indian School Days (1988) and Theodore Fontaine's Broken Circle (2011).
Where Johnston crafted a detailed account of his experiences replete with extensive verbatim conversations, and Fontaine's non-sequential reflections carry the reader along on his personal journey towards healing, Sellars' is a more straightforward and economical telling.
With almost no dialogue and a simple prose style, They Called Me Number One reads like transcribed oral history.
The book's 14 chapters essentially divide into three sections: a fondly recalled childhood being raised by her grandparents; the seven years she endured at the school; and her subsequent struggle to cope with the aftermath of her "education," which included a violent relationship and attempted suicide.
While only some 60 out of the book's 256 pages are actually set at St. Joseph's, the shadow the school casts over the lives of her family, especially her mother and grandmother, looms large in both the book and Sellars' life.
Once Sellars arrives at the school at age five following a lengthy illness, her story becomes less sequential and more built around specific kinds of memories: the brutal and arbitrary discipline, the mind-numbing routine, the appalling food, the inhuman disregard for her health and that of her classmates -- a number of whom die -- and the cruelly imposed and relentless cultural erasure (including referring to her as "Number One" instead of her given name).
These experiences leave Sellars emotionally crippled for years. Mercifully, she appears to have been spared the violent and debasing sexual abuse suffered by so many other aboriginal children, although she can't be certain: she is disturbed to realize that memories of an entire year of her life at the school are now lost to her.
The second half of the book describes how she eventually overcomes her pain to achieve academic success, enter the legal profession and become chief of Soda Creek First Nation.
Sellars' frankness, born of anger, is unsparing. Where the priests and nuns in Fontaine's Broken Circle are identified only by their initials, here the sex abusers at St. Joseph's are accused and named openly, even when, in one case, she only suspects a priest had planned to assault her.
Deeply personal, sorrowful and ultimately triumphal, They Called Me Number One is an important addition to the literature on residential schools, and Canada's reckoning with its colonial past.
Michael Dudley is the indigenous and urban services librarian at the University of Winnipeg.