Residential school experience helped create Ed John’s indigenous activism
When it comes to indigenous history, Grand Chief Ed John never passes up an opportunity to tell people about the impact of colonialism.
One of those instances took place more than 30 years ago. John was scheduled to speak at the University of Victoria’s recently opened law school building named after Matthew Begbie, B.C.’s “hanging judge”.
International scholars had gathered to talk about aboriginal issues, so John really couldn’t pass up the opportunity. John talked about the case Begbie decided in 1864 when he sentenced Chief Klatsassin and five other Tsilhqot’in to hang after the Chilcotin War.
“These were the chiefs who were fighting for their land, for the rights of their people,” John said.
In 2000, UVic changed the name of its law school building.
Earlier this year, the Law Society of B.C. announced that it would remove a statue of Begbie from its lobby because of its colonial symbolism.
John, co-chair of the society’s truth and reconciliation advisory committee, said the removal was an important step to make sure students and lawyers “understand the truth and our history.”
John has a long history fighting in the political arena on behalf of indigenous people.
John’s aboriginal name is Akile Ch’oh. He is a hereditary chief of the Tl’azt’en on the banks of the Nak’al Bun (Stuart Lake) in north-central B.C. They called themselves Dakelh, but settlers referred to them as Carrier.
When he was eight years old, he was sent to Lejac Indian Residential School at Fraser Lake.
“I wondered why my parents would send me away,” John told a The Vancouver Sun reporter in 1991. “I thought my parents didn’t love me.”
During six years at the school, he and his friends formed a resistance movement. They would steal food at night and speak their language when no one was around.
John said his activism came from the culture he absorbed from his family and the people he met in school.
In 2015, John was appointed by the Liberal government to look into aboriginal children in provincial care, which, in 85 recommendations, called for a jurisdictional transfer of aboriginal child and welfare from federal and provincial governments to indigenous communities.
“There are too many indigenous children in care and something needs to be done,” he said in the report.
“While I was not sure I was the best person to give this advice, my immediate reaction then was to say, ‘Keep the children at home. Do not remove them. And see those in care are returned back home.’”