The first elder in residence at the Edmonton Public Library says he has been training to share life stories since he was 14.
That’s when Wilson Bearhead, in the face of racism and abuse, left school and his home on the Paul First Nation to start a new life for himself in the city.
“We came through the horrors of poverty at the beginning of my life, there was never enough,” Bearhead said in an interview with Postmedia on Monday, ahead of his official appointment on Friday.
Bearhead recalls lining up for government rations in the 1960s, and at the time couldn’t understand why his community was so poor. It wasn’t until later in life did he realize their poverty was the product of legislation that barred indigenous people from practicing the traditions that allowed them to live off the land.
Both of Bearhead’s parents were sent to residential schools, and Bearhead said they passed the traumas they suffered on to him.
“Every day seemed like it was getting worse,” said Bearhead.
When he was in school, Bearhead said bullying from his peers over his indigenous heritage would escalate to physical fights and violence in the schoolyard.
“It comes to a point where enough is enough, and you ask yourself, ‘Do I fit in here? Why am I here?’ That’s when I realized I had to leave,” said Bearhead. “It wasn’t safe for me, and it wasn’t going to give me any opportunity, so I left school and I moved forward.”
While the displaced teen didn’t have much to pack on his trip to Edmonton, Bearhead said he carried with him the traditional teachings of his grandmother, calling her his greatest teacher.
“She taught me the language, she taught me the creation stories, taught me where the medicines are,” said Bearhead. She instilled in him a strong sense of identity that he credits with giving him the resilience to overcome the many barriers in his way.
Now, 44 years later, Bearhead — a respected community elder, educator and member of the Wabamun Lake Indian Band who has served as grand chief of the Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations and the Alberta regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations — will help others find answers and reconnect with aboriginal culture as the first elder in residence at the Edmonton Public Library.
“We see this as being a valuable service that we can do to collaborate more with indigenous communities, to offer something in our space where indigenous and non-indigenous people can work towards reconciliation,” said Linda Garvin, executive director of customer experience at the Edmonton Public Library.
Education was one of the calls to action made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Although the report did not include a call for action from libraries specifically, Garvin hopes the elder in residence program will serve as an important resource for information from an aboriginal perspective that will help advance those goals.
“There is so much Wilson can offer in terms of cultural teachings and knowledge about indigenous cultures and a knowledge of reconciliation that I think it presents a tremendous opportunity for people to engage in that discussion,” Garvin said.
Bearhead sees asking questions and facilitating discussions as key to challenging and breaking down barriers between aboriginal and non-indigenous people.
“As you start to open those doors a little bit at a time, it gives you understanding,” Bearhead said.
He hopes his presence as an elder in residence will encourage those with tough questions to find good answers, even if asking those questions is uncomfortable.
“It’s safe. We can respond to those questions, we can have a discussion around those questions,” said Bearhead.
Bearhead will be available at the Edmonton Public Library twice a week, one day at the Abbottsfield branch at 3410 118 Ave. and the other at the Stanley A. Milner Library’s temporary location at 10212 Jasper Ave.
As an elder in residence, Bearhead will be expected to host programs, lead smudgings and prayers at events, support staff and meet with library patrons. His role to be defined more clearly by the needs of the community and feedback over the one-year pilot of the elder in residence program.
Bearhead will assume the position after a special ceremony at the Stanley A. Milner Library’s temporary location on Friday at 10 a.m.
To view the original article, please visit the Edmonton Sun.