Steven Point, the former lieutenant governor of B.C., is a man with a mission — to bring literacy to First Nations people in the far-flung corners of B.C.
On Sept. 28, the affable Point was on the Sunshine Coast to deliver the annual Clifford Smith memorial lecture, a popular event sponsored by Elder College, an initiative of Capilano University. And although the miserable weather kept many from attending at the Sechelt Indian Band Hall, those who did were treated to an enlightening hour and a half.
The honourable former judge, Chief of the Skowkale First Nations and Tribal Chair of the Sto:lo Nation from 1994 to 1999 is, in spite of his many accomplishments, not one to stand on ceremony.
“It’s funny where you get your lessons from,” he began his talk.
“Today I was on the ferry when someone tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘you know your sweater is on backwards,’” Point laughed.
That humour and humility are just part of what’s made Point such an amazing individual. The other parts are an innate intelligence and a desire to help First Nations achieve whatever is their personal definition of success.
Early in his appointment as lieutenant governor, Point was asked if there was anything he would like to do during his term in office. As luck would have it, a limousine ride up to a conference in Whistler soon after his appointment provided an answer to that question.
Point, who was by himself in the back seat of the big vehicle, leaned forward to hear a conversation on literacy between the driver and Point’s aide-de-camp, Bob Blacker, then district governor for Rotary. The upshot of that serendipitous meeting was a pledge by the Rotary to bring books to Kuper Island. The next communities to receive books were Alert Bay, River’s Inlet and Kingcome Inlet.
At Kingcome, Point discovered a totem pole that had been carved for King George when he died. No one in the royal family knew about it, and when Point passed on the word, it became a big deal.
At the time, Point said Kingcome only had school to Grade 7, and older kids had to go to Campbell River. This had resulted in an abysmal graduation record. Soon after the visit there by Point and the Rotary, a realization came.
“We could upgrade the building and home school the kids. Barriers were coming down,” Point explained. He went on to elaborate on the barriers that predate even the horror of the residential school system.
During the 19th century, First Nations people were banished from large settlements. A smallpox epidemic at the time was used as an excuse to move them. Houses were burned after they left, and ironically, even the governor’s First Nations wife, Amelia Douglas, had to get special permission from her husband to remain in Victoria.
Point said the epidemic provided a useful excuse to cover the real benefits to Aboriginal isolation — Christianity could be spread more easily and large tracks of land opened up for settlers.
The residential schools provided their own kind of hell.
“People were prevented from speaking their own languages and ostracized from their own families. Thirty to 60 per cent of [residential school attendees] died, mostly from TB. There were abandonment issues. Children were ripped away from their families. Parents were told, ‘produce your kids or we’ll put you in jail’. There was physical and sexual abuse. People ended up emotionally and psychologically messed up,” Point said.
It didn’t end there. Generations of broken families produced another problem — parents unable to parent their children. In the 1960s this came to a head with children being removed from their families (extended and nuclear) and being put into foster care.
“It was done with good intentions but caused more damage than was intended,” Point said.
Extreme poverty and reservations peopled by residents with no hope of a better future resulted in 80 per cent of kids not completing high school.
After wondering if children in these remote places would even want books, Point was heartened to see eager children in the corner of the longhouse in Jervis Inlet reading to each other.
“The children just love having their own books,” he remarked.
With the help of Rotary and others, the literacy program has blossomed out into other social areas.
Britco has come through with 10 trailers leftover from the winter Olympics in Vancouver. Each valued at $55,000, they’ve been a godsend to the communities that have received them. Point is thrilled that not only has the program furnished books, but now it’s brought libraries too.
The UBC school of dentistry now comes to several of the communities; formerly this program had existed only for international need. At first the First Nations people shunned the dentists. Nightmare experiences of having their teeth pulled with no anesthetic had left the residents deathly afraid of dentists. Compassion and new experiences have eased the fear. Now the dentists spend three days at each place they go to cleaning and filling teeth. Also optometry programs are becoming available to the settlements.
“It’s about time. It’s Canadians helping Canadians,” Point said.
If you’d like more information about the literacy program, see www.writetoreadproject.org. The program continues with the blessing of the current lieutenant governor, Judith Guichon. Point’s legacy of literacy is making a difference in many lives, including his own.