They Called Me Number One: Secrets and Survival at an Indian Residential School

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  • Prix régulier $19.95
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    Bev Sellars

    Publisher: Talonbooks

    Year: 2013

    Format: Paperback

    Size: 256 pages

    ISBN: 9780889227415

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BC Book Prize, Non-Fiction, Bev Sellars, They Called Me Number One (Finalist)
Burt Award for First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Literature: Bev Sellars,
They Called Me Number One (Third Prize winner)

Like thousands of Aboriginal children in Canada, and elsewhere in the colonized world, Xatsu'll chief Bev Sellars spent part of her childhood as a student in a church-run residential school.

These institutions endeavored to "civilize" Native children through Christian teachings; forced separation from family, language, and culture; and strict discipline. Perhaps the most symbolically potent strategy used to alienate residential school children was addressing them by assigned numbers only—not by the names with which they knew and understood themselves.

In this frank and poignant memoir of her years at St. Joseph's Mission, Sellars breaks her silence about the residential school's lasting effects on her and her family—from substance abuse to suicide attempts—and eloquently articulates her own path to healing. Number One comes at a time of recognition—by governments and society at large—that only through knowing the truth about these past injustices can we begin to redress them.

What People Are Saying

"Sellars has given the readers an insight that we needed to hear."

"They Called Me Number One is from my perspective necessary reading across the generations. Over the past quarter century, I have been asked many times by students and others to recommend a book that speaks honestly and straightforwardly to the residential school experience in British Columbia and in Canada more generally. My long-time choice of Shirley Sterling’s My Name Is Seepeetza, written from the perspective of a child, now has a fine counterpart in Bev Sellars’s They Called Me Number One, crafted with the wisdom of hindsight." Jean Barman

About the Author

Bev Sellars is a former Chief and Councillor of the Xat’sull (Soda Creek) First Nation in Williams Lake, British Columbia. First elected Chief of Xat’sull in 1987, a position she held from 1987 to 1993 and then from 2009 to 2015. She also worked as a community advisor for the BC Treaty Commission. Sellars served as the representative for the Secwépemc communities on the Cariboo-Chilcotin Justice Inquiry in the early 1990s. She has spoken out on racism, residential schools, and on the environmental and social threats of mineral resources exploitation in her region. Sellars is the author of They Called Me Number One, a memoir of her childhood experience in the Indian residential school system and its effects on three generations of women in her family, published in 2013 by Talonbooks. The book won the 2014 George Ryga Award for Social Awareness, was shortlisted for the 2014 Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize, and was a finalist for the 2014 Burt Award for First Nations, Métis and Inuit Literature. Her book Price Paid: The Fight for First Nations Survival, published in 2016 by Talonbooks, looks at the history of Indigenous Rights in Canada from an Indigenous perspective. Sellars has a degree in history from the University of Victoria and a law degree from the University of British Columbia.



I was seventeen years old; desperate to escape my misery and all I could think of was to die.

I was so young but my life’s experiences had made me feel so worthless. All those years of abuse and putdowns finally caught up to me that night. I was so tired of trying to fit in somewhere, anywhere. A silly incident was the deciding factor. If anything was going to make me take my life, it should have been worse things that had happened in the past, yet that is all it took. At the time, it did not seem so little. That moment meant life or death, and I chose death. There did not seem to be any point to living.

I had taken my Mom’s bottle of sleeping pills away from her earlier that day because she had been drinking and had talked about taking her life. As unhappy as Mom's life was, I still thought she had reasons to live. Now, there I was holding the pills in my hand. I threw them in my mouth and swallowed easily. I lay down in the bedroom and waited to go to sleep. I did not think about people who were worse off than I was. I did not think about the family and friends I would hurt. I just thought about how lost and lonely I felt and how desperately I wanted out of this world, a world that seemed to offer only intense unhappiness. I did not have to wait long before I felt myself going to sleep …

I started writing this book in the early 1990s when our communities first started to explore and deal with the “aftermath” of the Indian residential schools. A close relative heard that I was writing a book and said to me angrily, “I heard you are writing a book. Boy, you better not be writing anything about me!” This reaction changed my mind about making my story public, but I continued putting my thoughts and memories on paper. In 2004 I decided to finish the book, even if it turned out to be only an historical record for my family.

I asked myself, “Is it possible to make other people feel what I once felt and understand the message I am trying to convey? Is it possible to make others realize the damage they are doing to themselves and their loved ones? Is it possible to help others by writing of my experiences, or will it only create tension with my loved ones who have been a part of those experiences? Should my memories stay just memories?”

I have concluded that I had to write this book and share with those who I know are suffering the same experiences as me. In speaking with others who went to the residential schools in other areas of Canada I am amazed at how similar our stories are about the treatment of the children. It is as if the various churches running the schools were all in the same training program on how to run these schools.

My restricted view of the world and the oppressive conditions under which I lived were not the only options for me, although my experiences until then did not reveal otherwise. In writing the book, I have realized that I am still disassembling the restrictive world in which I once lived.


In the early 1990s, I went into the local shopping mall in Williams Lake, British Columbia. I noticed a couple of women who were both at St. Joseph’s Mission while I was there. I went over to say hello and our conversation got around to my speaking out about the residential schools. One of the women said to me, “Why do you speak on residential schools? What pain have you suffered in your life that qualifies you to speak on the schools?” I was surprised at her question. I do not remember my response.

How do you measure pain? Some students looked forward to going back to the mission because their homes were so chaotic from all the alcohol in their communities. Unfortunately, some kids did not have a home to go to during our holidays. The woman who asked me the question was one of those whose home was completely broken because of alcoholism. Does that make her suffering more than mine? Or was my pain more because I knew there was something better at home for me than the life and abuses we suffered at the schools? Does the fact that I chose not to become addicted to alcohol or drugs disqualify me from suffering? Or, was my suffering more because I did not live my life in a fog that alcohol and drugs provided? If I chose to live through it, deal with it, feel the full extent of the pain and allow myself to grow emotionally and mentally, does that lessen my suffering?

Others in different countries have been persecuted. The Jewish peoples, the people in Rwanda and Bosnia, the Black people in the United States and others have atrocious stories to tell. Aboriginal people in Canada have a story to tell as well, a story of which most non-Aboriginal people in Canada are unaware. All of this happened in a country that proudly boasts as being one of the best places in the world to live; a supposedly democratic country where the freedoms and cultures of all are protected and respected. It is the greatest place to live for anyone, except for the original inhabitants of this land, the Aboriginal people.

I am angry about the way Aboriginal people have been and still are treated in Canada, but writing this book has allowed me to grow. I realize that complaining about the treatment of our people is justified, but doing something about it is more important. I found that I was not able to do anything to help my family, my community and Aboriginal people in general until I learned to help myself. Despite all of our experiences, it rests within each one of us to live up to our full potential.

I read somewhere that everyone is born with the potential for success, and it is only through life’s experiences that we develop or destroy that potential. For many Aboriginal people, our most vulnerable and impressionable years, our childhood years, were spent at residential schools. Our mental, emotional and spiritual growth was extremely stunted because of the way we were treated there.

You have to tell our story like it is, don’t hold back or make it seem like it wasn’t as bad as it actually was. People have to know and believe what happened to us. That’s what hurts … when people don’t believe what happened.

That is what Charlie Gilbert from the Williams Lake Indian Band (a.k.a. Sugar Cane) said to me when I started speaking out about the residential schools and the damage done to our people. I cannot tell everyone’s story. Others have told me some horrific stories about things that happened at residential schools, including a few potential murders but they are not my stories to tell. I do not have any right to speak on behalf of other people but my personal experience has exposed me to the effects the residential schools and other non-Aboriginal institutions have had on our society and people. I do not speak on behalf of anyone else’s experience unless it crossed with mine, and then I tell the story only from my perspective. The residential school and non-Aboriginal institutions had a drastic effect on me, and I am eminently qualified to speak on that.

Tags: Bev Sellars ....... children and youth ....... indigenous ....... memoir ....... settler colonialism ....... Talonbooks .......