An Interview with Barney Williams, Jr., Elder and residential school survivor
Orange Shirt Day recognizes the legacy and impact of the Indian Residential Schools in Canada. Falling on September 30th, the Day is an opportunity to honour residential school survivors and their families, and to commit to reconciliation.
At BMO, we believe that Canadian companies have a responsibility to provide education on Indigenous issues and experiences – and we take that responsibility to heart. To mark Orange Shirt Day this year, we are honoured to share the story of residential school survivor and Elder Barney Williams, Jr. in his own words.
Barney Williams Jr. is a member of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation. An Elder and a survivor of the residential school system, he served as a member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s residential school survivor committee.
Elder Barney worked with the federal government as a social worker for 21 years. He’s a registered clinical therapist and has worked in addiction treatment centres. He has dedicated his life to supporting the health and well-being of Indigenous people across Canada. He also served for 60 years as the traditional keeper of the beach for the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation.
The following is a condensed version of our conversation with Elder Barney.
What was your life like before you went to residential school?
I lived in a home with a lot of love and caring. There were so many great teachings from my childhood, and I’m a product of what my Granny and Grandpa taught me. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of Granny and Grandpa and the wonderful way that they raised us and loved us. And I have shared their teachings throughout my life – both with my own family, and in my work.
Granny taught me about humility, integrity, about being proud of my culture and who I am, and never trying to be someone who I’m not.
Please tell me about your experiences in the residential school system.
I spent 13 years in residential school. It started when I was five-and-a-half years old in 1945. The school was only two miles from my home on Meares Island.
I went to that school speaking no English, and I was punished for that – you’d get the strap or a beating. Or they’d put a block of wood in your mouth and make you walk around with it for eight hours. You couldn’t drink water or eat. There were beatings and sexual assault. I was abused physically, sexually and emotionally.
When we went to these schools, we believed in ourselves and our culture. We were happy. Once we were there, all of us kids were told we were dumb and we’d never amount to anything. So we all came out with a huge lack of confidence. When you hear that over and over, you believe it.
I stayed there for eight years, and then I went to Kamloops high school. When I came out, I was pretty messed up. I had to work through that for most of my life. I didn’t know initially what was wrong with me. It took me a long time to realize I had PTSD. I got into addictions. And then when I was 26, I was one of the fortunate ones – I sobered up, and I’ll be celebrating 54 years of sobriety this year.
Why is Truth and Reconciliation so important?
The power is in making people see the truth. The commission made people aware that something really happened. That there was this dark chapter in Canada’s history. We wanted people to know we were telling the truth, and that we weren’t trying to make people feel sorry for us. It helped a lot of people to understand just how bad it really was.
It’s also important because many survivors were able to talk about it and let a part of that dark history go, and to try and live a normal life. So many families were broken up, there were so many addictions – it was necessary for people to heal. I want people to understand that so many of the social issues we deal with on reservations stem from that dark time. There’s still a lot of work to do, and I don’t know if it will be over in my lifetime.
I sat on the advisory committee. There were ten of us. We had national gatherings across the country, we’d have a circle and the survivors would tell their stories. There were incredible moments. It was so heartwarming and meaningful to be part of it, and meet all these people who’d been through it.
It opened a lot of eyes and made people aware that this really happened. I think there’s a lot of support now that wasn’t there before. Some people will always dislike us. But the other side is: there are a lot of good people who do better when they know better.
You’ve dedicated your life’s work to the health and wellbeing of Indigenous people. Why is that the path you chose?
I did a lot of therapy and was able to understand that we all experienced a trauma, and that was usually pushed down in people. Buried in addictions. We felt like there was something wrong with us. Once I learned these lessons, I wanted to share them with other people, and bring a message of hope.
What’s one thing you want people who have more to learn to take away from what you have to say?
I hope the country keeps revisiting the things that happened. I hope we keep observing it. We keep supporting survivors. We keep listening to their stories. We keep increasing awareness.
Look at my story: I have worked hard all my life and I’m a member of my community. I have a nice family and a good life and I’ve given back to my community. We don’t hear those stories enough. We only hear what’s wrong with our communities. I want more good stories out there. There are so many elders and leaders who are really working hard to make a difference.
Please tell me little bit about your life now.
I am going to be 81 years old next week. I am at a point in my life where I’m very happy. I have a beautiful wife and kids and grandchildren. I really count my blessings that my kids didn’t have to go through what I went through, and they have the opportunity to be what they want to be. I’m thankful for the gift of life. And I have tried to bring a message of hope to other people in my work.
Learn about BMO’s Indigenous Advisory Council and our other Indigenous community programs, and find out more about our commitment to diversity and inclusion through our Zero Barriers to Inclusion strategy.