'Each of us has the strength to overcome anything'

Campbell River, BC

Barney Williams has had a fondness for apples ever since his first year at Christie Residential School.

He spent most days with his hollow belly aching from hunger pangs, but on occasion, the school’s staff discarded apple peels out of the kitchen window. Scrambling like dogs, Williams and his classmates would run out to collect them, savouring the sweet taste of the fruit.

As a six-year-old boy, Williams was forced from his home in Opitsaht, on Meares Island, and transported to Flores Island where he boarded in a stale, white building marked with a cross.

It took more than six decades for Williams to be able to tell his story. But in 2005, he faced a room full of strangers and gave his testimony during a hearing for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Despite being repeatedly told by school staff that he was “too stupid” and “would never amount to anything,” Williams became one of 10 elders chosen from across the country to advise the commission’s Indian residential school survivor committee, providing spiritual and cultural guidance.

The Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation elder has continued to inform policy in his previous role as chairman of the Elder’s Council for the Assembly of First Nations – a national advocacy organization representing First Nations citizens across Canada – as well as his current role on the advisory committee for the University of British Columbia’s Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre.

When B.C. became the first province to pass legislation implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2019, Williams was filled with hope. But despite this progress, he doesn’t feel like it’s enough.

“It’s not over,” he said. “If I were to grade the government, I’d give them an F. They haven’t done much. There’s still a lot of work to be done.”

While Williams has come a place where he is able to deal with his past, it has not been erased.

Christie Residential School was surrounded only by the rainforest and the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean. It was neatly tucked away. Most neighbouring white families in Tofino and Ucluelet had no idea it was there, he said.

It was only four months into Williams’ stay at the school when a man, who called himself a “brother,” sexually abused him for the first time. To this day, the 81-year-old can be triggered by the sound of footsteps walking down a hallway.

He never spoke of his abuse, hiding it from everyone he knew – including his wife – until he bared his soul to a set of strangers during his testimony.

For six years, Williams dreaded those familiar footsteps that came to collect him when there was nobody else around. Eventually, the 12-year-old outgrew the pedophile who stopped coming to get him.

By then, he was plagued, wondering, “What did I do? What have I done to create these things that are happening to me?”

It was that same year when one of Williams’ friends stole a gallon of sacramental wine and hid it in the woods. He urged Williams to drink, telling him it would make him feel good.

After taking his first sip, Williams said he was filled with warmth.

“It made me feel like me,” he recalled. “It made me feel like I was OK.”

Williams leaned into that “warm” feeling as he carried on through high school, where he attended Kamloops Indian Residential School and was abused by a nun.

After he left high school, his addiction progressed. There were periods where he would drink for 90 days straight, waking up in a hospital bed or in a jail cell, unable to remember how he got there.

The alcohol sent him into manic episodes of hallucinations. Images of snakes slithering across walls and entering through windows tormented him.

At 27, he was directed to Alcoholics Anonymous.

“It was my saving grace,” said Williams, who has been sober ever since.

As the Tla-o-qui-aht elder looks back on his life, he continues to give thanks to the Creator.

“Every day I remember to say ‘klecko’ – thank you to him. To say thank you for what I have now: life,” he said.

While the guise of education was used to destroy Indigenous culture and identity, Williams said it is now being used to empower First Nations communities, who have watched their children go off to become doctors and lawyers.

Now, it is the government’s responsibility to educate Canadians on its dark chapter in history, said Williams.

“We’re still dealing with a lot of sceptics saying it didn’t happen,” he said.

Only by keeping the government accountable for dealing with the 94 recommendations brought forward by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission will it begin to make amends, he said.

Turning a page in his own story, Williams was able to face returning to school when he was 31 years old. He enrolled at the Malaspina College, now known as Vancouver Island University, where he studied social work.

Two years later, he walked out with a diploma.

Williams began working with Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada in Nanaimo shortly after, where he remained for 17 years.

Developing an interest in trauma and addiction, he began his journey of healing.

“Not only trying to learn, but trying to understand my own story,” he said. “What it is that made me what I am and also what I could be.”

His extensive experience as a social worker allowed him to challenge a four-year undergraduate program. In 1988, Williams received his certificate as a registered clinical therapist in just 10 months.

He was further recognized for his work by being awarded an Honorary Doctor of Laws from the University of Victoria in 2017.

“I always try to tell people to be good to yourself,” he said. “Believe in yourself. Be who you are and always be really careful – always take care of yourself.”

In May, Williams suffered a severe heart attack. Despite the fact that his heart only functions at 30 per cent, he continues to council those who need help and acts as an elder advisor on various committees.

In fact, Williams has so many meetings and Zoom calls that his wife, Trina, keeps a schedule. He lovingly calls her his “executive secretary.”

For Williams, the work has been a calling.

“I feel honoured that I finally found my place,” he said. “I know that each of us has the strength to overcome anything. I’ve done that – I’ve overcome a lot of things to be here today.”

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