Basil Ambers

THE INTERVIEWER: I’ll get you to spell your first and your last name for me.
BASIL AMBERS: My first name is Basil; B-a-s-i-l, and my last name is Ambers; A-m-b-e-r-s.
That’s an interesting part of my life. When they went round to the villages to give Indians Christian names, my grandfather’s name was Umbus (ph.). That was his Indian name. They anglicized it to Ambers, not realizing that he was going to have a lot of grandchildren and things like that. So we all became Ambers and yet he was the only one that was supposed to be Ambers.
Q. You never thought about changing it back?
A. Oh, once in a while. I had an uncle. He asked the Interpreter, “What do you call a raven?” He wanted to be called Jim, you know. So the Interpreter said, “I don’t really know, but I think that’s the one they call crow.” So he became Jim Crow. He didn’t know that it wasn’t raven. (Laughter)
Q. That’s cute.
What school did you go to?
A. St. Michael’s in Alert Bay.
Q. Do you remember what it was like there? What was your first day like?
A. My first day? Marina’s father was my first cousin. Him and I were standing together in the long hallway in St. Mike’s and the supervisor said, “When you hear your name called you say ‘here, sir’.” So they got to Michael’s name and he didn’t answer. Three times the supervisor called his name and he still didn’t answer. So he came down the line and hit him over the head with the clipboard and told him, he says, “I told you when you hear your name called you say ‘here, sir’.” Well, I piped up and said that his name is not Michael, his name is Narookin (ph.). It was the only name I knew him by was his Indian name. I didn’t know his English name.
Q. Did you get into trouble for that?
A. Oh, of course we did. My mother once asked me, “Are you really bad?” I said, “Why do you say that, Mom?” “Well”, she says, “every time we come here you always have to stay in. We can’t take you out.” I tried to explain to her that you didn’t have to do very much in order to lose your privileges. You lost your privileges just for looking at a supervisor the wrong way.
I went to Court with Canada and the Anglican Church. I got licked really badly by a farmer there at St. Mike’s. We were going up the field to pick rocks up off the field. I was flipping these tiny little pebbles up in the air and one of them hit him above the boot. He turned around and grabbed me by the hair and he says, “Throw rocks at me, will you!” He knocked me right out. I never really recovered from that beating. So I took them to Court for what happened and I won my case.
It was really funny because the Adjudicator for Canada was sitting across from me —
Oh no. She was sitting next to me. It was the Adjudicator for the Province of British Columbia was sitting across from me, and the lawyer for the Province and the lawyer for Canada, and the Bishop of Victoria. It was almost as if it was me that did something wrong and I felt really funny about the whole thing. I told them that. The Bishop tried to apologize to me and he made such a poor job of it that I just shut him off.
But I won my case anyway.
Q. Good. What else do you remember about school? What kind of food did you eat?
A. We were hungry constantly. I became a table captain so I had to dish out the food to the kids at my table. Quite often I never got enough to eat myself because I ended up giving too much to one or two of the kids. We used to go —
The Nimpkish River was right across, only a few miles away, and we used to go drag seining there for Sockeye in the spring. But they never fed us one Sockeye. It was used for trade for other things. We never ate our own food in the school. All we ate was the junk that they gave us.
Q. Do you remember what it was?
A. Oh yeah. It was all junk. For breakfast we had porridge, but there were maggots in the porridge. We used to kid each other about having iron to supplement the porridge. (Laughter)
Everybody wanted to work on a farm because they grew stuff, eh. We used to hide things like turnips and potatoes and stuff like that just to try to fill that empty spot in your stomach. It got to the point that to this day I will not eat turnips. I ate too much of it in St. Michael’s. I don’t mind potatoes.
See, we worked half a day. We only went to school for half a day. I worked for five years in the boiler room at St. Mike’s, feeding the boilers big slabs of wood and stuff like that. We only went to school half a day right ‘til you got to Grade 8. And normally that’s when they threw you out of school and sent you home, was Grade 8. That was the cut-off point of your education. There were four of us who ended off —
We were the first four people who were legally allowed to go past Grade 8. There was one girl from Bella Bella and a young fellow from Prince Rupert and one girl from Alert Bay and myself. We all went —
They didn’t teach us in St. Mike’s. We all went down to the village in Alert Bay. There used to be a high school where the police station is now, and that’s where we went to school. Two of my friends, because they didn’t do well in school, got kicked out. One of them only got to Grade 3. They kicked him out. I almost cried when they left because that was my only hold to sanity was those two. It was tough.
Q. Why do you think they were your only form of sanity? What was it about those two guys?
A. Well, they were cruel. It was a cruel place. There was no such thing as love. There was only one teacher there that I really liked, who was really human about everything and the way she went about life and all that. She was my Grade 8 teacher. But the rest of them would just as soon hit you over the head as look at you.
Q. Do you remember her name?
A. Evelyn Moore was her name. I’ve often wondered what happened to her. I used to try to find out where she went to, and stuff like that. I never ever did find out. She went and taught up in Nisga country there, near the end of her career.
Q. And she was really nice?
A. She was really nice.
Q. She really tried hard to teach?
A. Not only to teach, but she was totally human as far as I was concerned. I really liked her.
Q. Oh, that’s nice. It’s always good when you hear a story where someone tried really hard to teach and to be nice.
A. And it was very evident with all the kids. They followed her around and hung onto her skirts and stuff like that, because she was a real human. But I don’t know. I used to always say if I had a nickel or a dollar for every time I got licked I’d be a rich man today.
Q. It was that often?
A. Oh yeah.
Q. Wow.
A. We got caught stealing apples one time. They had an orchard. We got strapped for that. We not only got strapped for it but we lost all our privileges for a month.
Q. How far was home from the school?
A. Oh, about thirty miles, by water. So it wasn’t easy. And it was shortly after the Depression and during the Second World War, so my dad couldn’t come in all the time. Even when he did come in I wasn’t allowed to see him. That’s when my mother made that comment about me being real bad.
Q. Wow. Did your parents go to Residential School?
A. No.
Q. No?
A. See, that was the thing. The other thing that happened was I started to lose my ability to speak Kwiakah (ph.) and my parents were only comfortable in Kwiakah. They weren’t comfortable in English because they didn’t go to school. So I had to relearn Kwiakah all over again, just in order to talk to my parents.
Q. Wow. What about brothers and sisters? Did they go?
A. That was the funniest part. I was adopted. I was adopted right from birth by my aunt. So the one I call “mother” in reality was my aunt. But my real sister was there. So was one of my aunties. One of my older brothers was there when I was there, but we weren’t allowed to mingle. So I never ever talked to my sister once in St. Mike’s, never talked to my aunt and I never talked to my brother because we weren’t allowed to get together.
Q. Was that hard?
A. Pardon?
Q. Was that hard to do?
A. Oh, of course it was. Of course it was. I loved my sister and I was really close to my auntie. I actually grew very close to my brother, too. After we got out of there we worked together for years. Our uncle had a logging camp and we worked for him. That was the only thing St. Mike’s taught me was how to be a workaholic. I worked and worked and worked for years and years. My first marriage failed because of that because I was never home.
But I came out of St. Mike’s and actually I was a very angry man when I came out. It took a long time to reconcile to the fact that it had happened and it was past and it was time to start looking forward. I got involved in all kinds of things when I got out of St. Mike’s. I went to work for the government and I worked with emotionally unstable boys for a number of years up in the Kootenays.
Then I came back home to the Coast and I ran for Chief of my Band and I got in. I went to my first meeting as the Chief Council and I was absolutely appalled at how the Department of Indian Affairs was handling our leadership. I didn’t know what to do. I was going to quit.
We had a very well-respected Elder who was the Chief of the Campbell River Tribe. I went and knocked on his door; old man Bill Cullen (ph.). I told him that we’ve got to do something. This is absolutely ridiculous. So the old man said, “Sit down, son, I’ve been waiting for you for a long time.” So we sat up all night, the old man and I, and talked about all the problems of our people. He said, “Okay, you know what to do now. Go talk to the Tribes and we’ll see if we can revive our Tribal Council again.”
And we did. We revived our Tribal Council. I got elected to Chairman. I was the Chairman for ten years. Then I went to work for the Nimpkish. I started their Salmon Enhancement Program and ran it for ten years. I also started the Coat Workers of British Columbia with Professor Jackson from UBC. Him and I started it. I worked as its head for a while. So I’ve done many things in my life all because of my experience in the Residential School.
So when we started getting together and started talking about healing and stuff like that, we met in Victoria, a bunch of us, and we created the Inter-Tribal Health Group. I worked for quite a few winters going to Tsow Tun Le Lun and worked with them.
Anyway, my health started to go because I got too involved. We initiated a Royal Commission on Health in Alert Bay; six of us. We went to Ottawa to fight for the Recommendations, the Recommendations that came out of that Royal Commission. All the points we went to Ottawa for we won and out of it came the hospital in Albert Bay, the clinic in Alert Bay and the recovery home in Alert Bay.
Q. Good. How old were you when you first went into school?
A. I don’t think I was seven. I was around six and a half.
Q. That’s pretty young. How old were you when you left?
A. I don’t know. I was there nine years apparently. I didn’t know. We didn’t know how long we were there. Nobody cared. We didn’t care about education. That wasn’t the point. Survival was the thing that we cared about and survival was the only thing that motivated us, all my friends. Do you know Bobby Joe (ph.)? Well, I told Bobby not too long ago, you know, pal, if you think about the amount of people that went to St. Michael’s together with? And he said, “Yeah.” There’s only a little handful of us left. That’s all. Dozens committed suicide, drowned or drank themselves to death. Some went under with drugs. So it’s really a sad tale. Who the hell cares about education? I didn’t. I didn’t care about education. I guess if it wasn’t for Evelyn Moore, I probably wouldn’t have gone any further in school. I probably would have just walked out.
That’s what happened to my cousin. When his mother found out that he got licked the first day in school, she took him out right away and absolutely refused to listen to anybody that was threatening her to send him back.
See, the thing that’s happening is that it was very gradual. You could see the change happening where the women started getting a better and better education and now there’s men getting a better education. But it has taken that long for education to become a focal point and for education to mean something. It didn’t mean nothing to my generation; absolutely nothing. It was a way of just trying to exist.
We had a terrible fear of the law and things like that because it was always a threat. Some of my friends got beat up by policemen and stuff like that.
Q. Did you ever try to run away?
A. Pardon?
Q. Did you ever try to run away?
A. We used to run away all the time. That’s why my friends got kicked out. (Laughter) This was during the War. We got kicked out of the Cadet Corps. We were in Cadets. I had just been promoted to Corporal and that very day they ripped my stripes off me and took my uniform away. (Laughter)
I was a rebel right from Day One. It took me a long time to accept a lot of things. It took me a long time to reform my life, to put it into the direction of trying to do something. And I did. For years I’ve been —
I know every Indian politician there is around because I used to work with them. We fought so many battles all over the place. Me and the head of the Haida Nation there, we put the moratorium in place to stop the oil drilling from Haidi-gwi (ph.) to Port Hardy. That moratorium is still in place. And we were the two that did it!
Q. That’s fascinating.
A. And then they had a guy who was going to put a ferrochromium plant in Port Hardy, and I was the spokesman for our Band when we fought that. We stopped it.
There was also a logger who had fee simple title to an island just outside our Band. It was our graveyard island. He wanted to start falling trees over the graves, eh. So we took the whole village out there, Elders and all and we stopped it. They gave us a retired judge to mediate between us and the logger and ourselves. We won that. It ended off that the government bought that island for us and it now belongs to us. Again! (Laughter)
Q. Good for you. That’s really good.
When you left school and started logging with your family, your siblings, did you discuss with them what happened in Residential School?
A. No. No. It was too sore a point to discuss. We didn’t want to talk about things like that. As a matter of fact, my uncle owned a logging camp and he went to Residential School, and so did his brother who was the second-in-command in camp. We were all related, every one of us in camp. My brother was the woods foreman and my second oldest brother was the yard engineer and I was the loading engineer. My kid brother was the head loader. So we worked together for years. It must have been well over twenty years that we worked together.
Q. But it was too hard to talk about it?
A. Yeah. Too hard to talk about it. We didn’t talk about it.
Maybe the odd time somebody would mention something, but we shut up about it right away. Why talk about pain? You’ve got to start growing. You’ve got to start experiencing life. I used to kid my friend, Thomas, that he was always trying to smell the roses from the wrong end because he would end up on the ground, sniffing at the bottom end of the rose!
Q. That’s a good point.
When you were in Residential School, what were the sleeping arrangements like? Did all the boys stay in one area?
A. Yeah. There were three dormitories; two downstairs and one up top. The higher school boys slept up top. The beds were about this far apart (indicating). There were over two hundred of us in there so space was at a premium.
Q. What was your average day like?
A. Well, depending on what the month was because as I said earlier, we had to work half a day. The school had over twenty cows and they had about thirty or forty pigs and 1,500 chickens.
Q. Did you eat of that food?
A. Pardon?
Q. Did you eat any of that food?
A. No. No, we never did. We used to have to get up at five o’clock in the morning to go and milk the cows. That was done every day, seven days a week. And if it was your time to work in the morning then you went to your job. Like me, I used to have to go to the boiler room and go to work. The only ones that didn’t work were the real small kids. I think I was about six years old when I started working in the boiler room.
As I say, we learned how to work early.
Q. Was it the male superintendents who kind of manned the dormitory for the boys?
A. The which?
Q. Was it the male supervisors who kind of manned the male dormitory?
A. That’s right. In Dormitory 3 there was a room in the corner and that was his room.
There was sexual abuse and stuff like that. I never was involved in any of that, but I used to watch kids going into that guy’s room in the middle of the night.
Q. Did you kind of know what was going on?
A. Not really because the kids didn’t talk about it. Why talk about something that you are disgusted with? You don’t bring it out. It’s sort of a no-no.
Q. Yeah.
A. There were very few Staff so force was the order of the day.
Q. Wow.
A. We had a retired English sergeant major that taught the Cadets, so he was very strict. If you were out of step he came up behind you and slapped you out of the line. That happened all the time.
Who are you going to complain to? There’s nobody to complain to. You weren’t allowed to see your parents so by the time you seen your parents you had forgotten about the incident waiting for the next thing to come up. It was a tough life.
Q. Would you say that you lived in fear every day?
A. Oh, all the time. All the time. I remember one day I was working in the woods, cutting wood for the boiler room. My friend was coming down from working on the farm. So I hollered at him. I said, “Where are you going?” “I don’t know”, he said, “they just sent for me.” So he went in. About an hour later he comes out and he’s crying. So he says, “We got strapped.” Never to this day do we know why he got strapped. They didn’t need much of an excuse. It was a tough life.
I have a lot of idiosyncrasies that are still with me today because of St. Mike’s. For instance, if I put food on my plate I’ve got to eat it all. That’s left over from Residential School that you ate everything on your plate. I could never understand people who eat only part of their meal and then send it back. I couldn’t do that, even to this day. I’m getting closer to eighty than I am to seventy. (Laughter)
Q. What else do you do? What are your other idiosyncrasies? What else are you doing that you know comes from that place?
A. Oh, it’s all kinds of things. I can’t begin to list them. After a while it just becomes a part of your life. You don’t even think about it any more.
And all the ones that died, you know, some of the best friends I’ve had in this world all passed away at a young age. It’s kind of hard to take.
Q. Yeah. Do you have any of your friends still living?
A. Pardon?
Q. Are any of your friends from Residential School still living?
A. Oh yeah. Frank Nelson. I count him as a good friend, and all his family. There’s a whole bunch of us, Bobby Joe and them, and we get together. We all became very involved in our culture, every one of us. Last week I went to Alert Bay to a potlatch and I’m always asked to speak at potlatches and funerals and weddings. I’m either speaking in Indian or in English, one of the two, depending on what the occasion is.
Q. When did you realize that you needed to heal?
A. Pardon?
Q. That you needed to heal from that?
A. Oh, a long time ago. When I first started thinking about it there was nothing. There was no organization that you could go to and ask for help. There was absolutely nothing. That’s why I decided to stop doing thigns on my own and why I started talking to all the guys like Bobby Joe and Frank and all them. We had to start the process ourselves, that it was necessary. I have always felt that the Canadian public doesn’t understand and never will unless we —
In Fort Rupert we decided that we needed to do something. So what we did was we invited people to come to our village, all the people who had things to do with us. We invited doctors, lawyers, school teachers and nurses and they lived right in our Big House for a week. I was the commentator for the whole thing. But we had to quit doing that because we didn’t have the money to continue.
But to this day I still get letters from different RCMP Officers and stuff like that and they always come to see me to talk about problems.
I’ve been aware of that for years. I’ve known that we needed to start the process. People challenge me constantly. That Ambers, he’s an Indian agitator! (Laughter)
Q. What would you like to say to survivors who haven’t found their healing journey? What would you like to say to them to encourage them maybe?
A. Well, you’ve got to heal. That’s number one. You’ve got to heal. And you’ve got to look at yourself. You’ve got to come to the conclusion that you’re not a bad guy or you’re not a bad woman, or whatever. We need to get back to the roots of a lot of things.
One of the things I tried to promote in one of our meetings, a big meeting that we had, was to get back the feeling of respect for our women that we were losing. We no longer respected our women. Quite often we mistreated them badly. We never got to that because of the hurt that people had.
During that meeting there was one old fellow who got up and he had been raped by a priest. He almost went crazy. One of his friends suggested why don’t you go to Confession and maybe you’ll feel better. So he went to Confession and when the person on the other side started talking he realized it was the priest who had raped him. And he had also tied him down in a chair while he raped his five-year old sister.
How are you going to get back —
— End of Part 1
…watching you go through a miserable lifetime and not me. I’ve always felt that if you’re going to do anything and if it’s going to be successful, it has to be really done properly. And not only properly, it has to take more than just one or two get-togethers. That’s one of the reasons why I got involved in the healing thing. Because I felt it was necessary that we do that and necessary that we explore all possibilities of creating that healing and not allow people to change that direction.
That’s what happens at times. We change the direction because as people get more educated they see things in their way. With us it’s from the heart. When we feel for the problem, we feel for the problem and we’re not happy if somebody tries to monkey with it, to change the direction.
Q. It makes sense. I’m really glad that you spoke up, too. Because we shouldn’t be so submissive.
A. That’s right.
Q. Do you know what I mean?
A. Yeah.
Q. I feel like when people start to ask questions that they’re on their journey or they’re learning about their own healing. It’s all right. There have been many many times in some places they won’t. They are so submissive to whatever process is in front of them.
A. And it bothers me when people come up to me and say, “You’ve got to learn how to live, man, you’ve got to learn to accept these things. It’s happened. It’s gone.” It hasn’t gone. The Residential Schools thing is the biggest factor that has shaken the Indian people down to their roots and it’s the thing that has changed our total look on history.
Even our way of eating and stuff like that —
We had a meeting with a doctor here a week ago. He was talking about diabetes. He tried to tell me that you inherit diabetes from your parents. I told him that I think that’s a pile of crap. He says, “What do you mean?” I says, “I lived in an area where there were five little villages, all close together, and there wasn’t one person in those five little villages that showed any signs of diabetes. How can you inherit something that’s not there?” I told him that diabetes, as far as I’m concerned, is because of the crappy foods that you’re now feeding us, and all the crappy foods that we’re getting out of the stores. I says that if you want to fight diabetes then you’ve got to fight it at its source. I told him, I says, “Look at what has happened to the fishing industry: it’s dying.” And I says that fifty years ago I told people you’re going to have to start learning how to eat Hemlock bark and Fir needles because that’s going to be the only thing left that you’ve got to eat because we’re destroying all the rest.
I get angry sometimes when I think about it.
Q. That’s all right. I know how you feel. I feel the same way. We should have been honouring the ancestral food pyramid that existed. I just lost four people I loved because of diabetes; my parents, my sister, and I just lost my niece in December.
A. Yeah.
Q. She was younger than I am. That’s not right.
A. Yeah, that’s right. I don’t know.
Q. What do you think you learned from Residential School? Was there anything that you learned that was valuable or good?
A. Nothing. Nothing I could not have learned on my own outside.
Q. Do you think it taught our people how to hate?
A. Oh, absolutely. I took a long time to re-evaluate my relationship with my parents. I loved them. I loved them dearly but I didn’t have the ability to so love because it was driven right out of me. That’s what happened in my first marriage. I didn’t realize that my wife was having problems. I wasn’t home enough to realize that. In a lot of ways it wasn’t that I didn’t care. It was because it had been driven out of me. So it was really a tough way to look at life.
Q. Did it affect your parenting?
A. Oh, of course. I’m really close to my kids. I’ve got seven kids. I’m really close to my kids now because I made a point of —
I’ve had two major operations. I had a multiple open-heart surgery and I had a cancer operation. While I was laying in the hospital in Victoria I started thinking about my grandchildren and great grandchildren, you know. I had accumulated a lot of stuff because I always had a good job. So I thought to myself it’s time I started looking at them kids, you know, and start making an effort to pass on these things that I’ve accumulated.
So I lined all my grandchildren up in my mind and I started figuring out what I was going to give away. I gave everything away. I had forty baskets. I had $80,000 worth of potlatch regalia. I had four big solid gold bracelets with watches on them. I had guns and stuff like that. I gave the whole works to my grandsons. I told them after I says, “All I own now is a cheap Timex watch; that’s it.”
And when I won my case with the Residential School and the Church I took most of my grandchildren to the West Edmonton Mall and we spent two weeks there. We spent all the money that I got from the government!
Q. That’s nice.
So were you eligible for compensation, like this last round of the compensation cheques?
A. I got it.
Q. You got that as well. Yeah. That’s good.
A. Yeah. That’s when I found out I was in there for nine years. (Laughter) I didn’t realize I was there that long.
Q. When did St. Michael’s close down?
A. It was in the sixties. I helped close it down.
Q. Tell me about that.
A. Oh, we just started petitioning everybody and telling them —
Well, it was obsolete. It was no longer answering even the things they wanted, eh. They tried to make good little farmers out of Indians and stuff like that. So it wasn’t working anyway. So there was a bunch of us that forced them to close it. But to this day I will not go into that building. It has too many painful memories for me.
I went with a whole bunch of Elders to Alert Bay to go to the Museum because I still sit on the Museum Board because I feel that the Museum Board can help us with the idea of teaching language and stuff like that. None of the Elders who came with me to Alert Bay would walk into that building. They told us we could go and look at it if we wanted to. They all sat on the steps and cried.
So when you say that the healing journey has started, it hasn’t really, you know. The Elders haven’t changed their minds about a lot of it. When they outlawed the potlatch they finally admitted that they did the wrong thing, but it’s still on the books. It has never been repealed. It’s still on the books. It is still being outlawed. A lot of the Elders when the masks came back, or some of the masks came back I should say, some of the Elders couldn’t talk. They had a big celebration in Alert Bay. This old fellow that I really love, he couldn’t speak when they asked him to speak. He was one of our big Chiefs. He just sat there and cried.
So what do you —
My dad lost over six hundred pieces of regalia in the Potlatch confiscations. Only twenty-two pieces came back and they were only minor pieces. There were some wolf masks and stuff like that. The rest were rattles and things.
So when you talk about Residential School and things like that it all inter-meshes with all the other things that happened like when they outlawed the potlatches.
Q. The Indian Act and all its restrictions?
A. Oh, the whole works. It all interacts together.
Q. They all go hand-in-hand.
A. Yeah. Yeah, they all go hand-in-hand. It’s really hard to divorce yourself from any of it. So when you talk about Residential School you’re only talking about a part of it.
Q. Yeah, one piece of it. From the conception and design of the Indian Act and the huge plan, there was a plan —
A. That’s right.
Q. – there was a huge plan. In order to understand the Residential School part of it you have to know the Indian Act and the restrictions that came along with it.
A. They amalgamated Bands all over the place and none of it has ever worked. It has been nothing but problems.
Q. All, including the electoral systems.
A. Yeah. I belong to a little Band. My father was Tlowitsis (ph.) and my grandfather was Montaglia (ph.). The Montaglia People were very progressive little Band. They had their own logging camp and they also had a seine boat. So in fishing time the whole Band went out fishing. When it was logging time they all went logging. So we had a lot of money in Ottawa because you couldn’t just do anything with that money. Ottawa said that you’ve got to give it to us. We’ll put it in the bank for you.
Anyway, Turner Island was never a lot of very much land. They were only given forty-seven acres and of that forty-seven acres you could only build on thirteen acres. So they looked around and they seen our little Band, the Montaglia, and we had over a thousand acres. So they amalgamated us with Turner and they said that they were going to make a showcase out of Turner. Everybody was going to get a house and they were going to use the Montaglia money to do that.
So we build two dams in Turner for water. One held thirty-six thousand gallons and the other one sixteen thousand. We plumbed all the buildings and then we hired an electrician and he wired all the houses and we bought the first generator and then we were broke. So our Chief —
By this time I’m out of St. Mike’s.
— he says, “We’ve got to go to Alert Bay, son, we’ve got to go and talk to the Indian Agent. We’ve got to get our money back.” So I said, “Okay.” He says, “Do you want to come because you understand the English language. You’re going to be our spokesperson.” So we went to Alert Bay only to be told that there was no money, that we were broke and Ottawa wasn’t going to pay us back a cent.
So we went back home and our hereditary chief said that we’ve got to split again, son. We’ve got to try to get out of this. This is bad. But we couldn’t to this day. We lost our land. We even lost our name. There’s no more Montaglia name left anywhere outside of us knowing.
Q. Yeah.
A. So it still goes on. As I say to me it’s all part and parcel of what they have been doing to us, not just the Residential Schools.
Q. I totally agree with you. I’ve studied the Indian Act and I know the plan. I saw how it was executed.
A. I find it really hard to try to explain to people the whole circle of things that has happened. I’m one of the major spokespersons for the Kwiakah Band. Any time we do anything I’m always asked to be a part of the planning and also part of trying to right what is wrong. I don’t know.
Q. I don’t know if I’ll see it in my lifetime but I want to do the best I can to educate our story tellers so that story can get out.
A. Also I hope it has an impact.
Q. And I believe it will because we are —
I didn’t know the importance of that plan and what had happened. I didn’t know all of that.
A. Yeah.
Q. Because I wanted to know where did the aggressive assimilation policy come from and who invented it. And then I wanted to find out where did Canada learn it from? Well, they learned it from the United States. And then I found out that Adolph Hitler actually commended Canada and the US Government for how they treated their Indian People. I researched all of this Basil, and it’s mind boggling to me.
There was a resistance. There were people like yourself and your father who were out there —
A. All the people that preceded me, all the leaders that we had, say, sixty years ago, they didn’t have any education so they didn’t know how to fight. They didn’t know who to go to or anything like that. It has only been in the last two or three generations —
Q. If that. If that.
A. – that we’re now starting to get people who are taking up the law and things like that. I’ve got a lot of friends who are lawyers.
Q. It will be the story tellers and the lawyers and all of us that will work together in a synergy to tell the truth. Because right now Canada is protected under the United Nations.
A. Oh yeah. Well, I don’t know. I sure hope it works.
Q. What do you want people to know about you?
A. Me?
Q. Yeah, and your journey.
A. I don’t care. I’m just about ready to go upstairs and go home. I’m seventy-six. I don’t care. Hell, all the people said, “You should write a book.” What the heck do I want to write a book for? Gee whiz! I have a hard enough time living without having —
This guy who is driving me has just bought a book. He says, “You’re in this book.” I says, “Oh?” “Yeah”, he says, “and I’m going to give it to you to read.” I haven’t read it yet! (Laughter)
I’m in about four books.
Q. So what do you want Canada to know about us in terms of —
A. I want Canada to know that they have done us wrong and to start righting some of those wrongs that they have committed.
Okay, one of the things that has happened which I looked at quite a number of years ago, is that they caught us all living in our winter homes. So when they came around to give out land we were given our winter homes, but the process was that there was no economic development in those winter home areas. Especially us, because we call ourselves the Potlatch People, winter time was a time for ceremonials. It wasn’t a time for work. You paid attention to your culture. That really impacted heavily on most Bands. We had no way of making money, which we need to do now, not that I feel like money is the answer. It’s just that I feel it’s necessary to put bread and butter on the table. I’m not much of a guy to expound on the need to become a millionaire or something like that.
Q. Do you want your grandchildren to see this interview?
A. Yeah. I want them to know who I am, who I was.
Q. What would you say to them? Would you give them some advice?
A. I tell them all the time that there are two things that are really important in this world: one is your family and the other is the friends that you make. I say if you pay attention to that you’ll be fine. You’re not going to lose too much in the process. You’ve got to know your family. Our family is very close and I’ve got some very good friends. I’ve got friends that I’ve had for close to fifty years. We get together every so often. We always know what’s happening with the other guy, you know.
Every time I get sick I go to Victoria. I have two close friends there. His wife is a Registered Nurse and she takes care of me when I’m sick. (Laughter)
I used to work with the other one in Alert Bay. Him and I did all kinds of things together. We built my little log house together and stuff like that.
Q. Great. Well, thank you so much for sharing your story.
A. Okay. Let’s hope it’s —
Q. Thank you so much. Thank you for helping us out today.
— End of Interview