Easter Sunday memory

Fifty-two years ago, on Easter Weekend, I witnessed something that would change my life. I didn’t know it at the time and I didn’t understand what I saw but I knew it wasn’t what it appeared.

It was my first time attending the Totem soccer tournament in Victoria. It was Johnny Rice’s (Songhees), tournament. A few years earlier he had single-handedly put it together with no sponsorship and no funding, something I would marvel at for years to come. In those days it was just a men’s tournament with 15 or 20 teams mostly from the west coast and lower mainland—Sliammon, Chehalis, Campbell River, Musqueum, Duncan, Nanaimo… I can remember players from each team—sleek and handsome.

I was 15 years old and there to watch the Saanich Braves, my boyfriend and soon to be husband’s team. While I loved to watch the games, it was the tournament itself that fascinated me.

I stood alone. Always alone. I was learning that I was white, something a white girl, in those days, had no way of knowing. The Totem tournament was Indian. I felt self-conscious and sometimes afraid but after awhile I found a space as an observer where I was somewhat comfortable.

So there I was at Hampton Park. A muddle of players and fans were milling around. A game had just finished and the Saanich Braves supporters were swarming the sidelines, setting up their lawn chairs and blankets ready for their match to start.

Onto the field strode what looked to be a Catholic priest (perhaps a Brother, I wouldn’t have known the difference). He was alone, garbed in a full-length black robe and a white priestly collar. I’m pretty sure he wore a large cross hanging from a long necklace.

He joined a small huddle of players who were still celebrating their win. I thought it curious that he would be so confident.

As if in slow-motion one of the players pulled his arm back. I watched him wind up. I kept my eye on the profile of the black robed man. While he was smiling, as if to congratulate the team, the fist nailed him right in the nose. As if I was watching a cartoon I saw him fly backwards, arms flailing, feet up, robes catching the wind like sails, the cross on the necklace whirling through the air.

I had never heard such a thing let alone watched its every movement. The crunch of what was probably a broken nose, together with blood bursting like fireworks, should have shocked and appalled me. But I was in my observer place, wishing hard that I wasn’t the only other white person in the park. At the same time I was thinking there is more to this—a backstory I need to know if I am to understand this gory event.

The player and his teammates turned their backs and walked away as if nothing had happened. No one from the sidelines rushed to help the injured man. He scrambled awkwardly to his feet, held his nose while rearranging his robe and stumbled to the sideline where he found a bench and sat down.

Every Easter Sunday afterwards I wondered what had happened that day and why.

In 1991 when Diane Harris and I interviewed former students of Kuper Island residential school we met an old soccer player. He asked us into his house and we sat in his living room amongst beautiful pieces of his art that were pinned to the wall. He said he was tired of being silent—that it was time to share his stories from Kuper. He told us about the time he attempted to escape with his brother, only to be sent back and the time he got a bunch of students together to report the abusers at the school, only to be silenced by the arch bishop. He described his confusion when he returned home, his alcoholism and other forms of self-abuse.

Then he told us about the only time he had the chance to truly express how he felt about the Kuper Island school. It was at an Easter soccer tournament. He said he was outraged by the nerve of the brother from the school who had come right onto the soccer field to congratulate him for the win. He told us how good it felt to punch him in the face.

Casting my memory back to witnessing exactly that instant now it all made sense. It was just a moment and 20 years later an explanation. I never could have imagined such a story. But it was a fundamental event in my life and in my learning what it means to be white. It may sound random on this Easter Sunday and I don’t want to be preachy or teachy but things are not usually what they first appear and through long and complicated life experiences I’ve come to know that being white is a deeply complex thing to be.

I don’t apologize for my colour—I did that for years and it did no good.

Diane told me not to stay on the sidelines. She said it was my job to talk about what I saw…so I have and I do. I share this strange memory only to give us a moment of pause to contemplate the tiny space we inhabit and to encourage us all to keep looking for the explanations of things we don’t quite understand.


Canada has been stuck in perpetual adolescence…unprepared to face the next step…growing up. I hope these painful days will be seen as a ritual moment when we were faced with our country’s true self and when we began to grow ourselves up.

Remember when you were a kid and you heard your parents whispering in the other room. You couldn’t make out exactly what they were saying. If they caught you listening they shushed you away and said that they talking about things that weren’t meant for kids’ ears.  

Remember the first time you heard your parents swear and then you realized that they probably swore all the time, just not when you were around.

Remember when you thought your parents, and especially your grandparents, were perfect and then found out your grandfather was an alcoholic and your grandmother still met up with her old boyfriend.

That’s us Canadians. We are grown-ups now. We are old enough to hear grown-up stories—the nasty ones everyone knew but didn’t want to talk about. We are old enough to know that our ancestors weren’t always the nice people we thought they were.

Hopefully now we will stop whispering. Hopefully we will believe the stories that are being told, especially about Canada’s particular racism against First Nations people.

Nothing has changed except our perception. But with that there is hope. Now we are coming face to face with the racism of our past we are better able to acknowledge the racism of our present and, with effort and determination, with everyone working together, perhaps prevent racism in our future.

That’s the challenge, Canadians…for all of us.


Kerry Black and Jim Munro, from the FNHIC team

Save the date. I am doing that thing that people do…retiring. I’m not retiring me. I’m retiring my current work. I think there is a difference.

I eat and sleep housing. You’ve probably heard me say it before…that the work goes on and on and on… Working on housing can never stop, not until everyone has a safe, life-affirming place to be and to become.

I also live and work in the First Nations housing field and have done for what feels like forever. It started almost 50 years ago when I moved to Tsartlip FN and I realized that Canada was not the country I had imagined. It was the housing that struck me first. How can this be Canada? That when I crossed the road and realized that the people over on the reserve side didn’t have access to decent housing? How can it be that my hard working husband and I cannot borrow money or find any way to build our family an adequate home?

Later when I worked as Tsartlip’s housing manager I began to figure out how deeply rooted the problem was and how the housing system was a manifestation of the racist government housing programs– strong words but the programs were, in fact, the problem itself. I knew there was only one solution. First Nations needed to take back control of their housing…government bureaucrats were absolutely the wrong people to be making the decisions.

A lot has happened since the 1990s when I started working in the housing field. These days I work with a team of First Nations people, working towards the transfer of the care and control of housing from the Government of Canada to First Nations authority. If that sounds like a strange job, it is. Why, you might ask, in 2020, would Canada still have control over housing in First Nations? That was the topic of my Phd dissertation and I can’t answer that question in a few paragraphs. However, for now it is enough to say that Trudeau’s Liberals have finally resolved to get out of the business of delivering housing services to First Nations.

In 2016 the Honourable Carolyn Bennett, then Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada announced that the federal government would support the creation of First Nations institutions to replace the Indian Department. “Perhaps you might want to build your own CMHC,” she said. She was speaking in Ottawa to the Assembly of First Nations Chiefs’ Committee and Housing and Infrastructure (CCoHI). I was a member of the committee as one of the BC technical reps. I heard what she said. As soon as we got home the other two BC reps and I got together and wrote a proposal to get the government to put their money where their mouth was.

We began to organize. If government was going to get out of the business we were going to be ready. In fact we were not going to wait for the government to “give back” control we were going to go and get it.

BC First Nations are like that. They were the first in Canada to take control of their own health services, they have world-class programs for the homeless and are innovative leaders in FNs education. They worked with the provincial government to turn UNDRIP into DRIP-A, the first legislation of its kind in the country.

BC First Nations Leadership Council (FNLC) said yes, let’s establish our own authority. In 2019 they mandated the BC First Nations Housing and Infrastructure Council (FNHIC) to create an institution and to make the transfer a reality.

It’s an unimaginably complex task. We have been listening to First Nations for several years. Their responses include “Yes we need to take control. The sooner the better.” “We have to make sure we don’t just mirror the mess already in place.” “I am excited to make our own mistakes and to fix them.” “Don’t transfer the government’s disaster onto our table without the means and the capacity to solve the problems.” “There are so many ways to improve. Let’s get started.” “Let’s make the new authority a truly by First Nations, for First Nations institution.”

Rarely do we get to be a part of finding the solutions to the big problems. Rarely do we get the opportunity to work with people who share the same vision and assume the responsibility to actually make it happen.

I got to do just that. For three years I’ve worked with the FNHIC developing the engagement strategy, creating teams of First Nations experts to do the work, listening to hundreds of First Nations people share their visions and concerns. I’ve written policy papers and analyzed government documents. I’ve worked with First Nations across the country as well as teams from the federal and provincial governments.

The next question is how do you stop doing the thing you have dreamed about? When does the time come to leave the dynamic group of people you helped create? The answers began to emerge in my mind after I rounded the bend towards the magic number of retirement. “I’m 65,” I would say to others. To myself I would say “I am 65 and most other 65 year old grandmothers are not getting up at 5 am for the first flight, travelling all over the country and living out of a suitcase.” When COVID 19 put an end to all of that I began to work more than ever. There would be no end to it. Unless I put an end to it. So I will and I have.

It’s the right time for me to move over. The space I occupy should be filled with younger energetic First Nations visionaries. This is their thing. I helped bring yesterday to today and will always be there to help bring today to tomorrow but I’m stepping over and out. January 1st I will reduce my input into FNHIC to a single project contract. By March I will be writing a paper for them and when that paper goes to print I am done.

Like I said. I’m not retiring. I’m retiring this work…perhaps the most important work of my life. Right now I’m thinking about what Kenny Rogers said “You gotta know when to hold’em, know when to fold’em…”

I will continue to contribute to the field, mostly by writing about it. This will not be the last you will hear from me on the topic of housing on reserves in Canada – promise.