First Nation chief Bev Sellars recalls growing up without hugs

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Chief Bev Sellars knew love in her family, but not hugs.

Sellars, a member of the Xat’sull, the most northern of the Shuswap tribe of the Secwepemc Nation, spent 1962 to 1967 at St. Joseph’s residential school in Williams Lake. She writes about the experience in her new book, They Call Me Number One.

Sellars, who is at the University of Victoria on Monday for a free, public talk, recounts that hugging, even the outward expression of affection, was alien to her and the adults in her family, who were also residential school survivors. In those schools, she said, any human touch was associated with abuse or pain.

Sellars learned to accept a hug in the arms of her own daughter. The young woman spent a year in Portugal as an exchange student. Upon her return, she started hugging her mom.

“I’m sure I cringed when she first did that, but after a time you learn that it’s something good,” she said in a telephone interview.

“It’s a different situation in the communities now,” Sellars said. “There is lots of hugging now.”

Permitting a touch from people she loves is part of what Sellars calls the necessary “de-programming” of what the residential school ingrained in her.

In school, she said, she was not allowed to grow up a Secwepemc person with pride and confidence in her potential.

“We were programmed to believe, because we were Native Indians, we were second- or third-class citizens,” Sellars said. “It had just a devastating effect.”

But she sees hope now in facing the truth of aboriginal history.

All Canadians are looking for better ways forward. New treaties are being negotiated. Aboriginal people are agitating to take full, complete control of their future.

“We have just got to keep plugging at this,” she said.

“We are in a new era now,” Sellars said. “People are now looking at this history of aboriginal people and seeing how, basically, it was a holocaust of the Americas.”

Sellars speaks Monday at the Ceremonial Hall, First Peoples House, at the University of Victoria at 11:30 a.m. Admission is free.

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