Book Review: They Called Me Number One

Residential schools are a dark period in Canadian history that continue to cast a long shadow over our country.  It is a difficult subject for aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians alike – albeit for different reasons.

For aboriginal people the experience created a well of anger, pain, tragedy, and sadness.  The well is so deep that many have buried their memories of the experience.  Talking about it to others – especially people that did not share the experience is difficult.  It means that it is difficult to heal from the emotional trauma as individuals, families, and communities.

For non-aboriginal people the stories are long-ago history that is shameful, but distant.  I think that most Canadians are aware of this past but not in any great detail.  It means that we never really come to understand the true impact of the residential schools – in the past or in the present.

Fortunately, a remarkable new book by Bev Sellars gives us both – aboriginal and non-aboriginal readers – a way to enter into the subject and find hope for personal recovery and national reconciliation.

Residential schools

Bev Sellars attended St. Joseph’s Mission at Williams Lake – an Indian Residential School. Lil’wat children attended the same school in Williams Lake, as well as St. Mary’s Indian Residential School in Mission and the Kamloops Indian Residential School.

Her account of the residential school experience and it’s impact on five generations of her family is captured in her book “They Called Me Number One:  Secrets and Survival at an Indian Residential School”.

They Called Me Number One

The book is a very honest personal account that gives some insight into the complexity of the residential school experience, it’s repercussions, and the condition of the aboriginal psyche.  The book has a very straight-forward style wherein she recounts small vignettes that illuminate her experiences: life at home before residential school; the routine of the school; the petty school-girl bullying that kids inflicted on each other; the small moments of humor and friendship; the overwhelming discipline, control and punishment; the personal dysfunction; the family tragedy…and yes even stories of love and redemption.

In total it is a sad and tragic experience – without question.  And yet the book really does have a sense of recovery and hope as she recounts emerging from her own mental prison to become more self-aware, self-assertive, and self-realized.

This is a deeply moving and personal story. “They Called Me Number One” should be required reading for all Canadians.  I highly recommend it.

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