Resolution: An Interview with Elder Joseph Williams


The Canadian Truth Commission process includes a group of elder Aboriginal advisors, to help guide the commission. One of those advisors is Joseph Williams Jr. (Taa-eee-sim-chilth), who is Nuu-chah-nulth and a member of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations in Meares Island, British Columbia. An elder and survivor of Indian Residential Schools, he is fluent in the Nuu-chah-nulth language. He is presently active in his work as an Elder Advisor for the British Columbia Assembly of First Nations office, Parks Canada, AFN National Elders Council, Tso-tum-le-lum Society Treatment Center, and the Intertribal Health Authority. Williams has dedicated his life work to the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal Peoples and is presently focused on youth, mental health, community crisis prevention, interventions, and addictions. In December 2010, Joanna Rice, an associate in the Truth and Memory Program at the International Center for Transitional Justice, sat down with Williams and asked him what his experience in the schools was like and how his participation in the truth commission is affecting him.

Joanna Rice: What is your role in the truth commission?

Joseph Williams: They selected a group of elders from across the country. The appointments were commissioned by the Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs. And the role of the elder adviser is exactly that: it’s to advise the commission on things such as cultural protocol, etc. If there are things they are doing that we feel they need to know about, we make them aware of it. For example, if they are going somewhere it’s making sure they are aware of the protocol in that area.

Could you give an example of protocol? Are you referring to practices of the traditional owners of the land?

Yes. You always respect what they do. Every one of us has a way we begin our ceremonies, and we as visitors need to be very cognizant of that at all times. It’s not something we just throw on the table for the sake of throwing it on the table; it’s something that I think everybody should know if they don’t know: that there is a government that has been in place forever. We need to be aware of that.

And do you give the commission recommendations on things more internal to the functioning of the commission as well?

Not so much. I personally wouldn’t go there myself. The chairman of the board is a judge, the commissioner spent many years with CBC, and Wilton Littlechild is a lawyer who has been involved with the United Nations. They are very prestigious people, eh? And they are also very passionate about their roles of working with the commission and working with survivors.

Could you tell me what your life was like before residential school compared to your life in the schools?

Well, it was like day and night. I grew up with grandparents. Mum died of TB when I was about one year old. I grew up in a home with lots of love and caring and understanding, and the school life was totally the opposite of that. I shouldn’t say there was no caring—but you certainly didn’t get the same sense of family that I did when I was at home. At home, I used to love to talk to my sister [and at residential school siblings were divided from each other]. So that was a big deal to me. My dad was there as well, but I had to call him Mr. Williams, and I didn’t understand that. (He was a staff member in the school I went to from grade one to grade eight; that was the reason for the formality.) It was a really difficult time in school. As a child I was very loved and cared for and was never without that, and then when I went to school I couldn’t understand, for example, why I couldn’t speak my language, why it was wrong to speak my language. I thought, “What’s up with this; why would you punish me for speaking a language that came from the Creator?”

What did they say were the reasons for not allowing you to speak your language?

They just said, “You can’t speak the language.” No explanation.

How long were you in residential school?

I went to school for 12 years in residential school. So I missed a lot of years as a child and a teenager. It was a long time; it seems like it was forever.

So you didn’t get to have a childhood?

No, not very much. I have some good friends from residential school. Well, the friends who are left, who are still connected. Actually, one of the friends I had came to visit, and we spent a week together here.

So they’re a support to you still, as they were in school? 

Yes, that’s right.

Could you tell me one really strong memory of residential school?

Well, that would have to be this friend that I had. Both he and I [were abused by] the same pedophile, but I didn’t know that until years later, when I was in my late sixties, when he came to visit me. He said to me, “I know what happened to you as a child.” And I always remember him being my strongest support both during and after those incidences of sexual abuse. We would get together and sit on a beach, and we would hug each other and have a good cry. We’d just be really supportive of each other. If there is a memory I don’t ever forget, it’s that. I think that’s probably one of the reasons I’m still here.

What do most Canadians not know about residential school that they should know?

I think what’s happening now is good in the sense that there is an education about the atrocities that happened in the school, and I believe that all Canadians need to know that. But also they need to know that it was an event that happened to a lot of kids, that it wasn’t just a few; it was literally thousands of kids that suffered. I’ve come to realize that there were also others where the experience for them was actually very good, and I don’t question that. I can only relate to mine. Mine wasn’t a good one, and I know a lot of really good friends who also did not have a good experience. I realize that there needs to be both sides, and not just my experience. [Canadians] need to know that there were actually caring people in that system who were there to look after the kids. It wasn’t everybody who was there to not look after us kids, or to abuse them.

Do you think the stories of survivors are now being believed in a way they weren’t, say, 10 years ago?

Yes, I think so. I believe that there is a greater awareness since the government apology and since the inception of the truth commission. There certainly is more visibility and transparency for these things than there was before.

What do most Canadians not know, or not understand, about First Nations and the Inuit in Canada that they ought to?

There are a lot of misconceptions. It’s much like what some of us did with our initial experience of residential school: we took a brush and painted everybody the same. I think a lot of Canadians do that as well with First Nations. They need to realize that not everybody is whatever they’re thinking they are, whether it’s negative thinking or positive thinking. They need to learn also that we have survived a great traumatic experience, that we survived and we’re going to stay here. We are not going away. They need to understand that: that we’re going to be here for a long time to come.

Do you think the truth commission is making a difference in the way Canadians think about First Nations?

I believe they are. I believe that are working towards creating an awareness and an education for people. It might not be visible, but I’m sure that it is working towards that: creating an awareness.

What things are the commission doing that can create that awareness?

I believe it’s the honesty that they bring to the commission as commissioners and certainly making people aware that they don’t have all the answers. But also I think that one of the other things they bring to the commission is a wide variety of experiences working with all kinds of people, not just First Nations.

Why is the input of someone like you—a survivor—an important part of that message to Canada?

I believe it’s that what we are saying is from the heart a lot of times. We’re not saying it for the sake of someone feeling sorry for me anymore. It’s for the sake of creating that awareness; it’s for the sake of someone saying, “You know what, this really happened.” This is not a story made up just so people can sit up and listen; this actually happened. It’s not show and tell, as you may say. It’s real.

Has being part of the truth commission made a difference in your life?

The passion I have for it has made me feel really good about being able to give something of myself. Certainly it’s neat to be working on a truth commission that’s coming from the same place I am. It’s really rewarding for me to be able to share. It was important to share with the youth that this is what I feel, that this is that what I’d experienced; that this is the real deal: what you see is what you get now, even after all that suffering. I believe that that’s the kind of message I bring all the time, that yes, you can make a difference in your life if you make that choice that I have, that other people that I know have: that choice to work hard to create some joy and happiness in our life. We all know that the pain is going to be there all the time. We do have our moments when we cry, and we do have our moments when we are sad, but we are also very cognitive of the fact that it was an event that happened that we can’t change, that I can’t change.

It sounds like you’re saying the act of sharing as part of a commission is itself an important act outside of everything else.

Yes, I think is. I think sharing is always the way to go. It gives you an opportunity to begin a journey, one that for many of [the survivors of residential school] is a lifelong journey. For some it’s being able to put some closure to something that was difficult for them in the past.

For you, has it all been positive being part of the commission, or has it also been difficult? Have there been moments that it’s been much harder to be part of this than if you’d step back and not given so much?

I believe that no matter what we do, there’s always going to be difficulties. I would be lying if I said this has all been great. I think it’s like everything else I’ve done: I mean, there were moments when I’ve thought, “Why am I even here? What am I doing here?” You know, not everyone listens. And we can be guilty of that ourselves sometimes: we come to a place and we forget that we’re also there to listen for advice. That happens once and a while, and I think the challenge then becomes, how do we talk about it, how do we rectify that and make it right. It’s really neat when you’re able to do that, or when we as a committee are able to do that—to work it out—so it’s not something left to fester and grow. What I like about the committee is that we’ve really bonded. We work well together and with the commissioners.

What does it mean to you to know that you share so many of the same experiences with these people from all across the country?

I don’t know what the word is, but it’s fulfilling. That’s all I can say: it just really feels good to be able to share. Because I couldn’t, and I still have moments. When I talk too long about it I get emotional and I cry, and then I get sad, because it was a horrible experience. I don’t think the scar ever goes away. I’ll always be scarred for the rest of my life, but being able to move on is great for me.

What about the reparations program? Has that been a positive, or are there difficulties related to participating in that compensation program?

Well, for me it brought a lot of closure to my experience. But I really believe that for some it’s not positive. It depends on the individual, and I can’t speak for anyone else but for myself. Was it a good experience? No. Was it something I needed to do? Yes. And the end result for me was that it helped me move beyond the pain, at least to the point where I can talk comfortably about it. I hadn’t ever talked to my wife about it until after, right up until I was getting ready to do this.

Do you think it was that the reparations recognized you and what you’d been through? Is that part of why?

No, it wasn’t the money. You see, when I was going through my ADR [Alternative Dispute Resolution], which was the first compensation process available to survivors, and I finished, the Canada lawyer who represented the government of Canada said to me “Joseph Williams, I believe every word you said,” and that was all I needed to hear. For me that was as though, if there was no money after that, it wouldn’t have mattered to me. The happiest day of my life was those words that were spoken to me at that time. And it still gets me very emotional to this day, that somebody could believe that this actually happened to me as a child, and especially somebody of that caliber. So that was a very big moment for me.

My prayer to the Creator is that all the friends and guys and gals, wherever they are and whoever they are, that they, too, may find that peace in their hearts and in their spirits, that they, too, will be able to move on and leave some of this stuff behind. And I know that for many of them it is very difficult. There’s not a day goes by that I don’t say a prayer for people who didn’t make it and for people who are living with a lot of pain and suffering, who I know are out there somewhere. My thoughts are always with them.

You mention people who did not make it. That seems to speak of the long-term consequences of residential school. Could you tell me what you think the results are today of this massive program of violence and assimilation?

I think part of what is happening is what is always happening, not just with survivors: we have to remember that we are faced with an intergenerational group of people who grew up with us, us being the 65 and older people—that’s the average age of a survivor, and there are 85,000 still alive. I believe we are still faced with the pain of often not understanding who we are, where we are from, where we belong. Thus we have gangs and we have groups of people that are still trying to find their way. And that’s the effect of the schools.

My generation, in the beginning, we didn’t understand, but we were really devastated by the trauma. We’re talking in the early ’50s and ’60s people were dying of alcoholism and suicide, drowning, and all that kind of stuff because of the abuse of alcohol. And there was in that time mostly heroin, because there wasn’t the kind of drugs that are out now. It’s devastating to our communities and our people. That’s all interrelated with what happened, and we need to get at that somehow. How do we go about asking people to really have a good look at themselves, to ask why are we doing this to ourselves now? Is it really because of residential school or is it that we were made so dependent—we’ve become so dependent—that the dependency has moved beyond the residential school? You know, there are a lot of questions that need to be answered, and I believe that at some point we are going to come to grips with that as communities, as nations, and as people. We are working towards that; we’re not just laying back anymore. We are making movements to see that way forward.

Would you describe your image for the future?

Well, my dream—and I don’t know if I’ll see it in my lifetime—is that we have healthy communities, totally healthy leadership: that whole healthiness we all strive for. That’s my hope and dream for everybody. Realizing that it does take time, I’m not saying we’re going to do this next year. But that’s our vision: that we’re going to get to that point.

What’s the role of the rest of Canada in that healthiness?

I believe if we continue getting the support we are getting, that we’ll get to a point of reconciliation. And reconciliation is going to be defined in so many different ways; I’m not sure that we realize that quite yet amongst First Nations people. From a cultural perspective we do it all the time—we have naming parties, we have coming-of-age parties—and we consider all reconciliation from a traditional perspective. But I think the rest of society may have a different interpretation of it. So now we need to come to an understanding of how we achieve that. Do we incorporate traditional ways with nontraditional ways? Maybe that’s part of it. And we need to be listening to some of our own ideas. Over the years it’s always been the other people who are saying, “Well, you need to do this and that,” and we’ve embraced that and it hasn’t been successful. Maybe we need to look more at working together and trying to come some kind of understanding that this is the way we have to go. And it’s going to be better for everybody because this is everybody’s problem; it’s not just a First Nations problem. Canada has to take some responsibility.

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