At 11 years old, he left life at the cannery with his family and stepped on a train to go to school in a distant unknown place for the next three years of his life.
In 1953, when he came home for the last time, he got off the train in Port Edward and he could hear his mother scream — “Murray, Murray!” — as she ran toward him, her body shaking. In the months when he was gone, at the Edmonton Indian Residential School, his sister told him that his parents would fight and his mother would call for him.
Murray Smith (Algmxaa) is now 77-years-old. He is a former addictions and drug counsellor, a Tsimshian elder from the Lax Kw’alaams Band who often opens for events in the community and he just spent a week at the University of Northern British Columbia as the elder-in-residence sharing his memories of residential school, his knowledge and culture.
“What I remembered about the residential school is I learned to be very mean. I equate that to the mentality of a prison. We were locked in and the windows had thick wire screens. You couldn’t come and go,” Smith said.
In the summers, his father paid his way back to Cassiar Cannery, where they lived and worked. He was luckier than many of his schoolmates whose parents couldn’t afford to pay for their ticket back home.
He was also lucky to have a guardian angel at the school, a supervisor who took a liking to him and protected him from being bullied and molested by the school’s minister, James Ludford, who was later convicted of gross indecency and suspended for one-year to receive psychiatric treatment.
As an adult, he had the chance to visit the Edmonton school with his wife. When they approached the area, he remembers something inside of him changing.
“I didn’t know what was going on with me in my soul. I knew I was angry and I didn’t know why,” he said.
The demons Smith fought were not only memories of the school, they also came from a history of alcoholism and violence in his family. His mother had gone to Crosby Girls Home, the residential school in Lax Kw’alaams.
Smith completed his schooling in Port Edward after the new school was built there. His brother gave him a drink when he was 13-years-old, “Seagram’s 83, never forgot it,” he said. “When it hit my stomach my whole world changed. Why am I so afraid?” That first sip lead to a 40-year battle with alcohol.
At 18-years-old, he married Louisa, who worked in the cannery with him. They were together constantly, he said he never wanted to be away from her and 58 years later they are still married, with three grown kids.
But over the years, he continued to drink and lie to his wife. He said he never took responsibility for his drinking, until one day Louisa came into his room after he woke from a drinking spell.
“I want you to know how you hurt me. I can’t look at you because you hurt me so bad but I have it written down. I’m going to read it to you,” recalling what his wife had said to him. Then he said, a miracle happened.
“I heard a voice in my head. You can’t continue to hurt people the way you’ve been hurting them. It’s the end of a line.”
Smith said he’s never desired a drink since. He started a recovery program and attending AA meetings. He sought counseling, and went to a treatment facility.
In 2000, he went to school in Vancouver to become an addictions and drug counsellor. Then he returned to Prince Rupert to be a family counsellor at Northwest Band Family Counselling. Most of his clients were residential school survivors.
The work he did involved alcohol, drugs, separation, marriage and breakdowns. Louisa was also a counsellor in the community. In 2014, the counselling centre ran out of money and the couple have been retired since.
These days he works with elders at the Friendship House, where he used to be on of the Board of Directors. Smith has also been vocal about the need to protect salmon habitat in the Skeena River, and his concern for how a liquefied natural gas terminal on Lelu Island may affect the surrounding environment.
“Our voices weren’t heard by levels of government, provincial and federal,” he said. In May, he had the opportunity to attend the United Nations in New York and to speak his mind with other First Nations leaders from northern B.C.
His voice is hard to miss, even if he feels his words weren’t acknowledged. The captivating storyteller takes his time to tell his own history, and even in his retirement, his continued engagement in the community within the city and beyond begs more of his story to be told.