As I write this, I’m sitting in my room in my community, Nadleh Whut’en First Nation, at my late Grandpa Alec George’s house. Growing up, I spent many summers here and weekends in the winter. Grandpa’s house was our house and we were always welcome.
There are memories of him all over the place. Last year, we tore down the old shed that held the winter’s wood for 70 years. My Grandpa built it well! I kept most of the shed panels to turn into a keepsake.
Grandpa also had a 4×8 that he fashioned into a bench beside the house. There he would sit, with a great view of Nadleh River, the bridge and the mountain. He would watch us as we played soccer and baseball well into the warm, summer nights with our cousins from all over the Rez. Up north it stays light out forever!
But one of my favourite memories is getting water from the river. Up until 1980, homes here had no running water. So Grandpa would take a barrel on his truck and dip it into the river. It sat in the kitchen – full of water for cooking, cleaning (dishes, the house and us) and drinking. There was a dipper hung from a nail in the wall to get water. It was good, clean water!
There is also a big dipper in the sky. It was the only constellation I could ever find. People would point out other clusters of stars and try to make some sense of them to me, but they never looked like anything. But that dipper, I knew that dipper!
When the water started running from taps in the house, the barrel and the dipper were gone. The only thing left is the memory of them and the nail hole.
My Grandpa worked hard all of his life. After Grandma died (when my mom was four years old) he raised his children as a single dad. He was well respected and a good example to many in the community. He was the first to buy a TV and a new car. When the weather dropped down into the -40’s, he would take the battery out of the car and bring it into the house for the night, to make sure it started so he could get to work.
The closest “big” town is Vanderhoof, a half hour east. During the 1970’s there was a sign in a local business that said, “No Indians Allowed.” This is a shocking part of Canadian history. Shocking to me is that it was in my lifetime. We tend to believe segregation and racism only happened in the 1950’s, deep in the American South, but it was alive and well here as well.
Another shocking part of Canadian history is the abuse of Indigenous students of the residential schools. They eventually won one of the world’s largest class action suits, against the Canadian Government. As part of their settlement, they asked for an apology and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), based on the South African model after apartheid.
In 2008, residential school survivors received an apology from the Prime Minister of Canada. Unfortunately many, like my Grandpa, did not live long enough to hear this apology. I wonder what he would have thought about this.
I was a witness at many TRC events held across Canada where former students shared their stories. Horror stories, mostly. Some of the disciplinary actions taken against Indigenous children can only be called torture. (Hear their stories at www.trc.ca)
What gives me hope is to see change happening in my lifetime. Today no one would tolerate a sign saying, “No Indians Allowed” on a public building. But sometimes these signs still exist in the hearts of Canadians. We have work to do to raise awareness of Indigenous worldview, culture and values because reconciliation starts in learning of the people whose land we are on.
Thanks to the courage and tenacity of our Elders who never gave up the struggle to hold Canada accountable, we are living in a new day and the journey of reconciliation can begin.
I remember my Grandpa when I look at the Nadleh River, this beautiful land, and the big dipper in a starlit sky. My Grandpa had a strong faith. I know he prayed for me and our beautiful Nadleh Whuten’ne. I believe that we are living in the days of answered prayers of our ancestors and that
gives me great hope.
Dr. Cheryl Bear is a CBM Strategic Associate Field Staff, as well as an award–winning singer/songwriter and educator. In her capacity as Indigenous Relations Specialist, Cheryl is helping to educate and inspire churches to seek reconciliation with Indigenous communities.