Out in the Open

How poverty and violence make the 'golden years' a distant dream

People at the economic and social margins don’t have the luxury of ageing into ‘golden years’ and retirement.
Bernie Williams smiles at the Sto:lo Elders Lodge in Chilliwack, B.C. (Geoff Turner/CBC)

In a life plagued with violence and poverty, Bernie Williams never had the luxury of planning a secure and happy retirement. At 65, she has found some comfort at the Sto:lo Elders Lodge in Chilliwack, B.C. but even seven years ago, Bernie was struggling to survive.

Bernie was born in Chilliwack and raised on the Union Bar Reserve, a part of the Sto:lo Nation, near Hope, B.C.

"I lived a kind of really horrible life as a kid," she says. "I had alcoholic parents, and (was) always getting beat up because they were drunk."

She spent years in residential schools, and her father was murdered when she was 13, on New Year's Eve.

When Bernie was just eight, she was left to look after her four siblings, including her infant brother Clifford. She woke up to fix breakfast and returned to the bed to find the baby had died in his sleep.

"I carried that for a lot of years," she recalls.

After years of abuse at two different residential schools, Bernie ran away, and eventually wound up in foster care of a non-Indigenous woman in Vancouver. It was a period of stability in what she describes as a loving home.

In her early twenties, Bernie met her future husband, Reggie Williams. She would spend the next 39 years suffering from his physical and emotional abuse. 

When the marriage finally fell apart, Bernie found herself struggling to survive.

"I was homeless for a while. My husband deserted me uptown like a dog."

She bounced around without a real permanent home for months before her physiotherapist found her and brought her to the Sto:lo Elders Lodge. Bernie has her own suite in the building, which is designed to resemble a traditional Salish longhouse.

Bernie uses a wheelchair after an aneurysm and a series of strokes left her disabled. It's another reason she didn't have high hopes for her retirement years. 

"It's been 20 years now and they gave me a fifty-fifty chance to live," she says.

"I'm still here."

Bernie says that despite the turmoil and violence in her life, she still had some dreams for her senior years.

"We were supposed to travel all across Canada on a train," she says. "Having a real home and settling down and having a garden. Never happened."

Bernie Williams is lucky to have stable care.

According to a 2013 report by the Health Council of Canada, Bernie's story is common among Indigenous seniors. Poverty, poor diets, racism, violence and trauma make the seniors more likely to suffer chronic disease and mental health problems. For many, the kind of care that Bernie is getting is simply not available, and if it is, it's far from home.

At home at the Lodge, Bernie says she's happy and secure.

"Being in a wheelchair, I do pretty well for myself."

She says these are her glory days.

"It's where I'm safe."

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This story originally aired on October 8, 2017. It appears in the Out in the Open episode "Ageing*".