History has been the subject of many stories over the years. Books have been written, lessons have been taught, heritage has been established and most of all an identity has been discovered through the wake of it all. For each story, there is a uniqueness. Every family has a story that is their own that has bound them to a land, a time and a place.
Nicola Campbell was born and raised in the Nicola Valley as a member of the Nicola Valley Indian Band. Life was not easy for her family. Campbell’s father had passed away when she was very young. Her mother struggled to make her way in the world, before at a bit later age than most, she dug her heels in and became a teacher. Her mother became an inspiration to Campbell in her own life.
Campbell’s mother was not her only inspiration, however. As a young girl, she grew up hearing stories about residential schools. As a person of First Nations descent, the stories had a huge impact on her family. “My uncles, my aunts, my dad, my grandfather, my mom, they all went to residential schools,” stated Campbell.
Like her mother, Campbell switched careers a little later in life. She headed off to UBC looking for more and finding it in her studies. Even Campbell herself did not know where she would end up, but she did know that she wanted to write. “I was inspired by my aunt, Maria Campbell. She published the book “Half-Breed,” the year after I was born.”
“One of my favourite things to do is racing,” announced Campbell to the students at Vermilion Forks School. She read a poem about a boat made from a single dug out cedar tree. “I sit seven…the skip is always eleven…cedar against cedar…I don’t want to be anywhere else…our canoes are alive.”
“I decided I wanted to be an author when I was about seven years old,” Campbell said to the curious students, “but school was not easy for me. I struggled through school and found out that you don’t have to be a brainiac to do what it is you really want to do. You just have to be determined and you will find a way.”
At UBC, Campbell wrote and had her first book published. Shi-shi-etko is a story about residential schools. Campbell’s second book Shin-chi’s canoe won the TD Canadian Book Award. With the prestige came a cheque for $25,000 that Campbell split with illustrator Kim Lefave from Roberts Creek on the Sunshine Coast. “My publisher hooked us up,” said Campbell “and Kim has been incredible to work with.”
Shi-shi-etko has been turned into a movie. “Can you imagine a community without children?” Campbell asked. “Can you imagine parents without children?” Both Campbell’s books are children’s books, but Campbell has more dreams. “I want to write a novel and have a book of poetry published.”
“Every single day there is something that inspires me,” Campbell said to her captivated audience. “I notice the small things that we don’t always notice. I became an author in 2005. In 1928, the powers that be in the Canadian government created laws that demanded that the Native children attend residential school and that time needs to have a voice.”
Campbell’s personal side to the story did not emerge completely until she attended university and learned about government policy. “There were stories about the schools that were told, but it wasn’t until I went to UBC and started a story as part of a school project that my first book took shape.”
Residential school life is a thing of the past, but is a part of history that was not taught in schools when Campbell herself attended. “The kids didn’t get enough to eat while they were away from home, so they did most of their growing in the summer and if their parents died the kids weren’t told until they came home.” For her second book, Campbell worked with elders across Canada talking to survivors of residential schools.”
Along the way, there were many bumps and blips for Campbell to overcome. The death of her brother in a car accident being among them. She stepped back from school for a while after struggling through the sudden loss and came back when she was accepted into the creative writing program in 2002. Her love for the written word, her past and her present relationship with the world are three forces that Campbell has been able to bring together in a powerful voice. There is no question that the voice is still strong and needing to be heard.