British Columbia·First Person

I'm working toward a brighter future for my First Nation community — and I need Canadians to join me

Sept. 30, 2021, marks the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. It is the beginning of a very long road that I ultimately hope will lead to a meaningful bridge between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada, writes Chief Willie Sellars.

Being a leader has afforded me the opportunity to contribute to the healing process, but I need your help

The foundation of reconciliation is truth — and all Canadians have an obligation to have a better understanding of our history as it relates to the treatment of Indigenous people, Chief Willie Sellars writes. (Kiera Dolighan/Kiera Elise Photography)

This First Person piece is by Willie Sellars, Chief of the Williams Lake First Nation of the Secwepemc Nation. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

I grew up on the lands of the Williams Lake First Nation (WLFN), on the reserve commonly known as "Sugar Cane."

About 400 members live on that reserve and about as many WLFN members live elsewhere. Our community is about 10 kilometres south of the city of Williams Lake, in the central Interior of British Columbia. It consists of beautiful fields on the shore of the lake, with long blowing grasses and a surrounding shroud of trees and mountains.

I have loved my community for as long as I can remember. I have loved my family, my people, our history, our traditions and the stories of my elders. 

There were so many positive things growing up, like fishing, sports, crafts and spiritual activities. Everything in my youth seemed rich and filled with colour.

But along with all the beauty in my world, there was also pain. You didn't have to go far in Sugar Cane to find people who had issues with alcoholism or drug addiction, seeking ways to drown out their suffering. There were some children who went hungry, or who weren't provided with the necessities of life by their parents. 

I learned early on that for many, this suffering was rooted in the history of colonization and residential schools.

St. Joseph's Mission, a residential school operated by Catholic oblates, was situated about six kilometres from my home. Established in 1867, it was part of the residential school system from 1891 until its closure in 1981.

During nearly a century of operation, thousands of children went through its doors. Many never came out.

From my early years, I heard the stories of terror that came from the survivors of St. Joseph's, and I didn't have to stray too far to hear them. My father went to St. Joseph's and even though his experience was in the later years of the facility's operation, the impact of the residential school system was evident.

The stories of St. Joseph's were gruesome. There were accounts of rape, torture, starvation and murder.

As a kid, I dreamed of being a person who could help my community. It seemed an incredible opportunity to be a chief — to be that guy who could make a difference and help improve the fate of my people.

But I felt that I wouldn't be worthy of a leadership role until I earned the status of elder — that I couldn't have knowledge or wisdom to lead until I walked the Earth long enough to learn all the important teachings of my people.

I ultimately concluded that leadership is not just about age and wisdom. It's about a commitment to learning, to doing your best and to attempting to effect positive change. So I took the leap into politics.

Willie Sellars writes that as a kid, he dreamed of being a person who could help his community. Ten years after being elected as a councillor of the Williams Lake Indian Band, he was elected chief of the Williams Lake First Nation. (Kiera Dolighan/Kiera Elise Photography)

I was first elected as a councillor in 2008 — and ultimately as chief of my community in 2018. 

As terrible as the legacy of residential schools has been for my people, my role as a leader has afforded me the very important opportunity to contribute to the process of healing and reconciliation.

In May, the remains of 215 children were discovered at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.

It was a shocking reality check for many Canadians, but it came as no surprise for my community or for most First Nations communities that had experience with residential schools. It was simply shining a beam of light onto one of the darkest secrets of Canadian history.

Following the discovery of the unmarked graves, how do we now move forward and attempt to advance reconciliation between First Nations and non-First Nations people? 

The foundation of reconciliation is truth. All Canadians have an obligation to have a better understanding of our history as it relates to the treatment of Indigenous people.

We all need to inform ourselves about the legacy of colonization.

We need to think about what it has been like for generations of First Nations who were removed from their lands, who were for a century denied basic democratic rights, who were forcibly confined in residential schools and prohibited from practising their language and culture.

I'm not asking the Canadians of today to carry guilt or to acknowledge that they are to blame for what has happened to Indigenous people in Canada. I'm simply asking for people to make best efforts to educate themselves and to understand how these impacts have shaped First Nations communities.

It's critically important to think about how our history has created systemic disadvantages for my people, caused deep trauma, and resulted in lasting social, economic and physical suffering.

We don't always see the divide that colonization has created between Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people, but it's there.

I'm asking all Canadians to reach out and build relationships and friendships with First Nations individuals and First Nation governments. These can be personal relationships, work relationships or business relationships. 

There is work that our First Nations communities can and must do, as well, in advancing the truth.

In August, WLFN commenced the exploration of the site of the former St. Joseph's Mission residential school. Uncovering the truth of this facility, and 130 other such facilities across Canada, is a critical part of the path toward reconciliation.

We need to remember the overall goal of residential schools was to strip the Indian from the child. That's why First Nations must draw strength from, and take comfort in, our culture and traditions. Our ancestors fought hard to protect our culture and give us the opportunity to celebrate it today.

We must honour our ancestors by speaking our languages, by singing our songs, by telling our stories and by continuing the practices that we have engaged in for thousands of years prior to colonization.

Willie Sellars pictured with his family. (Willie Sellars)

Our Indigenous communities also need to fight fiercely for the social and economic advancement of our people. Indigenous people are over-represented in the criminal justice system and under-represented in post-secondary educational facilities. We have huge challenges with community infrastructure and we have far higher unemployment than non-Indigenous communities.

With hard work, and with the support of other Canadians, we can and will narrow these gaps. We must invest in education and in social, economic and physical infrastructure. It will take a huge amount of work — but that's what I signed up for when I agreed to serve as chief. 

Fundamentally, we must all believe in the goal of reconciliation and work tirelessly to make it a reality.

I hope that for Canadians across Canada, the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation inspires them to join me on this important journey.