Books - They Called Me Number One

They Called Me Number One

Bev Sellars, LLB’01
Talon Books
256 pp.

In her memoir, They Called Me Number One, Xat’sūll Chief Bev Sellars gives the first full‑length account of life at St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School, which operated from 1891 to 1981 in Williams Lake, BC. Five generations of Sellars’ family attended. “In our house,” writes Sellars, “we did not speak unless there was something relevant to say.” What Sellars says in these pages is relevant, heart‑wrenchingly dark and oddly uplifting.

Sellars starts her story with her grandmother, Sarah (Baptiste) Sam, who first attended St. Joseph’s Mission in 1903, at the age of seven. At the Mission, Sarah Sam became Number 27. Her sister Annie was Number 28. From 1962 to 1967, Sellars lived a similar life at the Mission. There, she was known as Number One. “Thankfully,” says Sellars, “our numbers were not tattooed on our skin.” Upon arrival, students were deloused with DDT, even though it was banned in Canada. Her Gram often said that she hated to send the kids, “but if I don’t, they will put me in jail.”

They Called Me Number One describes a few positive memories at the Mission but mostly points to a culture of belittling and abuse, topped off by a disregard for basic human rights. The Mission, says Sellars, was “a breeding ground for dysfunction.” Compassion was almost non‑existent. As a result, Sellars says, “we remembered even the smallest bit of kindness.” Though kindnesses did little to alleviate the lessons ingrained at the Mission. Lessons like “don’t try to be better than anyone else” or “speaking your mind only results in trouble” stayed with Sellars throughout her life. But the biggest hangover was the shame of being an Indian.

When Sellars started public school in 1967, it became apparent she was “emotionally and socially crippled” but also incredibly bright. She had an IQ of 133, although she didn’t know what that meant at the time. Despite difficulty dislodging ideas inculcated at the Mission, Sellars raised a family, went on to college, became Xat’sŪll Chief, attended law school at UBC and found love. Her reflections on the reasons for the violence, alcoholism and abuse within her community are biting but fair‑minded and, above all, essential to an understanding of the long‑term effects of residential schools.

They Called Me Number One has been shortlisted for the 2014 Hubert Evans Non‑Fiction Prize and won the 2014 George Ryga Award for Social Awareness in Literature. It should be read by all Canadians.

Books - This Location of Unknown Possibilities

This Location of Unknown Possibilities

Brett Josef Grubisic(UBC professor of English Lit.)
Now or Never Publishing
342 pp.

Brett Josef Grubisic’s newest novel, This Location of Unknown Possibilities, brings together two disparate realities: the fast‑moving film industry and the staid ivory towers of academia. The combination creates a subtly complex composite that pokes fun at contemporary culture.

The story is a behind‑the‑scenes look at a low‑budget movie set in Hollywood North. It revolves around two characters and their alter egos. English professor Marta Spëk is uptight and earnest while her boss, film executive Jake Nugent, is cynical and sex‑obsessed. The two first meet in Nugent’s office at a film studio on the outskirts of Vancouver, where Professor Spëk is already a long skytrain ride away from her comfort zone. The setting quickly moves to a remote location in the Okanagan, where both characters are faced with altered versions of their protected realities.

Grubisic uses a vortex of references from literary works, self‑help books, online personals, B‑grade slasher flicks and Hollywood actors to produce a meta‑narrative that is oddly recognizable but defies labels. This stripping of labels applies not only to the book, but also the film at its centre as well as the characters responsible for creating it.

Professor Spëk is an expert on Lady Hester Stanhope, a Victorian adventurer and traveller whose archaeological expedition provides the basis for the film The Prophet of Djoun. Spëk’s expertise on Stanhope lands her a job as a film consultant but the industry is fickle. The Prophet of Djoun becomes The Battle of Djoun, more of an action flick than a biopic. Aliens are added and Lady Hester Stanhope is rewritten. This mirrors the transformation of Marta Spëk, whose personal shift is helped by Chaz, a self‑mocking production assistant. Meanwhile, Jake Nugent, an A‑type personality whose narcissism and insatiable sex drive renders him at once attractive and obnoxious, spends most of his time chasing sexual opportunities and a fraction of his time working to keep the film on budget and on time.

In the end, both Spëk and Nugent come to the conclusion that “a perfectly seamless and unified selfhood is a consolatory fiction.” This Location of Unknown Possibilities reveals that any film, or even person, can be rewritten. If we accept that the stable reality we inhabit every day is really only a frame of reference, anything is possible.

Books - Children of Air India

Children of Air India: un/authorized exhibits and interjections

Renee Sarojini Saklikar, BA’85, LLB’90 (UBC Book Club Facilitator)
Nightwood Editions
96 pp.

Renee Sarojini Saklikar’s Children of Air India is a poetic response to the largest mass murder in Canadian history. On June 23, 1985, a bomb blew Air India Flight 182 out of the sky and into the Atlantic Ocean, killing 329 passengers, many of them Indo‑Canadians.

After almost 20 years of investigation and prosecution, which cost Canadian taxpayers almost $130 million, only one suspect was convicted. The Commission of Inquiry’s report, released in 2010, blamed the government, the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service for mishaps that allowed the act of terrorism to happen. All these facts do little to unearth the private grief buried beneath the public tragedy. Children of Air India is “the saga of a nation” presented in a sequence of elegies that speak to “what it feels like after”.

An introductory poem declares the book a lament, a work of fiction, weaving in fact. The last line says, “Another version of this introduction exists, it has been redacted”. Throughout the book names are removed, authorities invoked then unauthorized and entire lines of text crossed out.

In the spirit of court proceedings, which often obscure or remove sensitive information, Saklikar selects and adapts anecdotes, gossip and facts from witness statements, newspaper clippings, the Air India Trial Media Information Package and John C. Major’s Commission of Inquiry into the Investigation of the Bombing of Air India Flight 182, among other sources listed at the back of the volume. The sources are numerous and their individual pages lengthy, yet Saklikar constructs 96 slim pages of loose prose, “each story‑bit / a laceration”. The banal is lined up next to the bomb. The “plausible and implausible” are set beside the “catastrophic and unreasonable”. As Saklikar writes in “Elegy: what it feels like after”: “It is all there. It is nothing”.

Children of Air India is a harsh rebuke. The fragments offered here, the child’s battered shoe, the scrapes of memory, are full of horror and loss. In both form and delivery, Children of Air India tells us that without reflection, there is no remembering. Even then, another version exists and it too may be redacted. Children of Air India has been nominated for the BC Book Prize’s Dorothy Livesay Poetry prize.

Books - Robbers

Robbers! True Stories of the World’s Most Notorious Thieves

Written by Andreas Schroeder(UBC Creative Writing instructor)
Illustrated by Remy Simard
Annick Press
168 pp.

Andreas Schroeder’s graphic novel Robbers! True Stories of the World’s Most Notorious Thieves balances grit and greed while exploring some of the most cunning crimes of the century. The book is part of Annick Press’ True Stories from the Edge series for young readers and follows two previous books by Schroeder, Scams! (2005) and Duped! (2011).

Nine tall tales are told in Robbers! They include the 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa; the 1972 bombing of a bank vault; the unsolved case of D.B. Cooper, who parachuted out of a plane with $200,000 in 1971; the story of a robber so captivated by the Duchess of Devonshire, a painting he stole in 1876, that he carried it around in a false‑bottom briefcase but eventually sold it to the Pinkerton Detective agency in 1897 with a caveat that included immunity from prosecution and financial security for his children; the botched getaway from a 1949 bank robbery in a prosperous northern Ontario gold‑mining town; the 1927 holdup that was the undoing of a charming cat burglar whose decade‑long career amassed an estimated $10 million; the 1963 ambush of The Royal Mail car known as “The Great Train Robbery”; and the “ingenuity, psychology and audacity” of bank robber Willie Sutton, who was caught a dozen times and sentenced to more than a hundred years in prison but kept escaping and robbing banks.

This is merely the scaffolding that supports a myriad of rich detail. As a side bar to the bank robbery in Ontario’s Larder Lake, Schroeder points out that, at the time, Montreal banks were robbed at a rate of one every 93 minutes. An interesting note that ends the story about Adam Worth, the cat burglar who stole the Duchess of Devonshire, says many believe Arthur Conan Doyle based Sherlock Holmes’s nemesis, James Moriarty, on Worth’s methods and exploits.

For young readers learning about the boundaries of social convention, Robbers! True Stories of the World’s Most Notorious Thieves speaks to the impulse to “simply take something we want.” But it is Schroeder’s expansive knowledge coupled with his delight in recounting tales of mischievous bedlam that make this book notable. Robbers! True Stories of the World’s Most Notorious Thieves was nominated for the Ontario Library Association’s Silver Birch Award, which celebrates its 20th year in 2014.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Please be aware that comments submitted through this form will appear publicly below this article. Comments may also be published in future print issues of Trek magazine.

Comments are moderated, and may take some time to appear.