Day 158 - Hector (1st person I approached)
June 07, 2014 - Today I wandered. I like to just leave my house and walk, without having a destination in mind. See where the day takes me, and who I might meet. I ended up walking through the Olympic Village, in False Creek. At the waterfront, there were crowds of people for dragon boat racing and practise. I realized that Hector and I were walking at the same meandering pace. It looked like we were both out for a sunday stroll, making our way through the crowds. I asked Hector to chat and when he agreed, we found a spot to sit down. His only stipulation was he had to be home in Chinatown in time for the hockey game.
Hector was born in Hazelton, British Columbia (BC).
“I was born in Hazelton because it was the nearest hospital to our home. I grew up in Gitsegukla, about 40 kilometres southwest of Hazelton. The village is on the edge of the Skeena River,” said Hector.
“Gitsegukla means ‘People of the Mountain.’ It is where my mother is from. We are members of the Gitxsan nation, or ‘People of the River Mist’ in translation. It’s a small village of about 500 people.” I asked Hector about his education growing up.
“There was what was called a ‘day school’ there, run by people who had been brought in by the Canadian Government to teach.” Hector went on to tell me about his own personal experiences. Emotional, physical, sexual and spiritual abuse at the hand of the people brought in to support those living on the reserve.
“I suffered at the hands of the Pastor, his wife, the teacher and the councillor. Of course I heard many stories from others as well, that underwent the same treatment as I did. But I know what I endured myself. It wasn’t a place that I wanted to stay. So I never went to school.” He told me of one specific instance that he recalls, with the pastor.
“We have an expression in the Gitxsan language ‘Nagwaudumlth zum lakagithat’ which roughly translates as ‘Our Father, who art in heaven.’ We weren’t allowed to speak our language or say our prayers in Gitxsan though, because the pastor told us our language was written by the devil. And there wasn’t anyone to defend us,” said Hector.
“The (church) had learned of one of the priests abusing children. They moved him to another reserve and he continued abusing children.”
When he was 15 years old, Hector started working.
“My father was a carpenter and I got a job as a carpenter’s assistant. I learned a lot. I did many other things as well. Cleaning building sites, labourer, moving man and other odd jobs,” he said. Hector started drinking at an early age.
“I wanted to move to Vancouver, from the age of about 16 or so. I knew a lot of First Nations people who had moved to the city. There’s an expression that those who moved to Vancouver, only ever came back in a wooden box. I wanted to move to Vancouver so I could die,” he said. At this point, I asked Hector if speaking about his experiences growing up was too upsetting. I said that I didn’t want to make him relive a time that he might otherwise not want to recall.
“Not at all,” he said calmly.
“I want to honour my parents and tell the truth as it happened to me. It is for me to tell my story. So many First Nations people do not get heard and I make it a point to tell my story whenever I can. We are often invisible. I am not,” he said with conviction.
In his twenties Hector tried several times to commit suicide.
“I shot myself. Twice. The first time I held a rifle under my throat, but when I reached down to pull the trigger, the gun slipped and I shot myself in the shoulder. The next time I shot myself in the leg. I’ve thrown myself in front of passing trucks and cars. I tried to hang myself. My father had taught me how to tie knots. I got some rope, and tied a knot. I hung the rope from a tree and put it around my neck. When I kicked the wooden box that I was standing on away, instead of hanging myself, the rope slowly lowered me to the ground. Someone found me and I was taken to hospital by the police. I remember asking the policeman if the rope had stretched. He was puzzled and asked me to explain. I told him what had happened and he looked at the rope and saw that it hadn’t stretched. They kept me in hospital for a few days to monitor me,” Hector says, with a sheepish and somewhat humble chuckle.
When he was in his thirties, Hector moved to Vancouver.
“I continued drinking. And I worked. I did whatever work I could find. I’ve never been on social assistance. I’ve always paid my own way. Even as an active alcoholic, I always worked for everything I had,” he tells me.
“I remember drinking in the alley behind the Carnegie Centre at Main and Hastings (one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Canada). I had been there, for about a week. Just drinking. I was with some friends and I realized that I couldn’t move my body. I slumped forward and I could hear my friends, but I couldn’t even lift my head. I heard one friend say to the other ‘Let’s get out of here, he’s dying’ and they took off. My mother had always told me when ever I felt that there was nothing else I could do or there was no one left to hear me, that God was always there. I started to pray. I asked for help. I don’t know how long I was laying there for. I remember looking around and the only thing I could see was a sign across the street. It said ‘Street Church.’ I couldn’t read or write, but I knew that's what that sign said. I eventually managed to get myself up and I headed across the street. As I got across the street a woman came out from the building and she did something no one had ever done before. She invited me in, she accepted me and she welcomed me. I had never had that before, ever,” said Hector.
"I realized that all along I had been trying to kill myself, with alcohol." That woman was the wife of the Street Church pastor, and she helped Hector get sober. He has been sober of over twenty years now.
For the next six years, Hector spent much of his time involved with the Street Church.
"The Pastor and his wife taught me how to read. I was 45 years old and didn’t know how to read or write. The first thing I learned to write was my name. Hector spent time in Bible classes, learning about religion and learning how to read with the bible.
“I still see the Pastor and his wife. They are very much a part of my life.” Hector had been carving traditional First Nations pieces out of wood and selling them.
“I decided to stop carving. I didn’t like what I was doing. I felt like I was giving away our traditional symbols and art that is significant to my people. My parents never lived to see me sober. I wanted to do something. So I went to school.”
Through a number of organizations including Main Street Education and the Downtown East Education Centre, Hector worked at getting his Bachelors Degree in General Studies. I asked how he managed to get funding. Hector laughed at me and shook his head. Then he smiled and said
“I have long black hair, dark skin and I wear earrings. I'm not white enough. I wasn’t eligible for anything. I worked and paid for my education myself. And everything I did in school, I had to work harder to get. I was always being scrutinized. Toward the end of my BA, I did get some money, but not from the BC Government. I got funds from the Province of Ontario,” said Hector. He told me a story of an assignment he had worked on with a fellow student, a caucasian friend that he had been in class for two years with.
“I told him I wanted to do our assignment together. He would write his paper, and I would write mine. Then, we would submit each others work under our own names. We told a few classmates and had people check both papers. The work was solid. He got an A plus on ‘his’ paper. I got 50%. When we went to our advisor, not the teacher and told him what had happened, I was accused of cheating. I had to rewrite and resubmit my paper. My original work had gotten my friend an A plus. But not for me,” said Hector. He told me all of this without emotion, and without anger or any malice in his voice. It was all very matter-of-fact.
“I’ve also been part of an action against the Government for reparations relating to the abuse I suffered as a child. We got an apology, and I’m fighting to maybe get a cash settlement. Nothing will ever make up for what happened to me, but I’m determined to show everyone that I am better than that. I want to others to see that I can make something of myself, despite the years of abuse and neglect.” Hector now works as an alcohol and drug counsellor.
“I use traditional First Nations healing practises combined with western counselling,” Hector said. He is a member of the Healing Circle for Addictions Society.
Hector is three weeks away from completing another prerequisite class for his next endeavour.
“I’ve been accepted to the University of Victoria and will begin studying this fall for my Masters degree in Counselling Psychology. I’ll be commuting back and forth because I still have to work to pay for my education. But my education is the most important thing to me. I want to help others, and give back. This way I can tell my story and I can make a difference." #notastranger