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They Called Me Number One: Secrets and Survival at an Indian Residential School

by Bev Sellars

As Canadians slowly begin to acknowledge the atrocities of the government-funded, church-operated Indian residential schools of the 19th and 20th centuries, Bev Sellars, Chief of the Xat’sull First Nation in Williams Lake, B.C., feels she has a mission “to make Aboriginal people realize that it is time [they] started living again and not just surviving.” Her memoir provides invaluable insight into the enduring effects of a tragic and shameful part of our collective past, and also helps to begin the process of healing.

They Called Me Number One describes the author’s experiences at St. Joseph’s Mission in the 1960s. Required by Canadian law to attend the residential school, Sellars and her siblings were removed from the care of their beloved maternal grandmother early in their lives: “No one asked our parents or grandparents if they wanted their children to attend the school. Gram always said to Mike, Bobby, and me, ‘I sure hate to send you kids back to the Mission but, if I don’t, they will put me in jail.’”

Sellars recounts numerous instances of severe physical, mental, and emotional abuse at the hands of the Mission’s staff and teachers, which resulted in long-term phobias, nightmares, migraine headaches, anxiety, alcoholism, and a disabling sense of inferiority. No aspect of Sellars’ troubled youth and early adulthood is off limits, including her responsibility for a devastating car accident that claimed her uncle’s life. More than once, she attempted suicide. Not just a jolting account of abuse, racism, and dysfunction, however, Sellars’ story is also one of healing and resurrection. She has abandoned an abusive relationship, earned two degrees, and become a community leader.

They Called Me Number One conveys anger at current and past governments, religious institutions, and a legal establishment that continue to condemn First Nations peoples to lives of fear and deprivation. Calling for the return of control over their resources, economies, and lives, Sellars declares her hopeful mission to help others “deprogram the destructive teachings of the residential schools” and take their rightful place in Canadian society.