Only one of two fluent Sm’algyax teachers working in the local school board, Ben Spencer said his belief in the importance of education runs through his veins and his lack of graduating high school is an example he shares with others to encourage them onwards.
“I use the example today for my great-grandchildren and my grandchildren that education is really important,” Ben said.
Born in Kitkatla 67 years ago, Ben has always lived in the Prince Rupert region whether it is in his birthplace, the city, Port Edward, or Metlakatla. Growing up in the region learning hunting and fishing from an age as early as eight years old, he is well versed in the ways of the North Coast. He’s worked in the cannery at the age of 15 and has been married to his high school sweetheart since he was 17. They will celebrate their 50th anniversary in May. They have 27 children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Now, he wants to pass on the cultural ways and languages for the generations to come.
His belief in retaining cultural languages stems from his time in Indian day school as a child when he was taken from his grandparents’ house and placed in grade one by the teacher of the school.
“One of the things that really affected me was the Indian day school and residential school,” he told The Northern View. “It wasn’t planned. They just came in. They said your child is old enough to go to school. They would come and get the children and take them to school.”
Ben said he remembers the day well even though he was so young. His parents had travelled into Prince Rupert for a monthly supply trip and he was spending the day with his grandparents on Kitkatla.
“They took me right of my grandparent’s house straight to school,” he said.
Ben said his grandfather always told him that he needed to be educated in the ways of others.
“As my grandfather always said, you got to get educated to fit into — the word he used was, ‘white society’.”
When he was a child Ben thought the other children who went away to residential school were fortunate for the opportunity to become educated. He said his ‘biggest pet peeve’ was when one of his friends left the community to go to school.
“I didn’t realize. I didn’t realize …” he said. “They [the adults] thought the school was there to educate you and they didn’t realize or know what was going on and what was not allowed.”
Ben said he would watch his friends and other children leave on the train when the summer months were over to be returned to residential schools. It wasn’t until years later that he finally understood.
“I finally found out what they were pretty much going through and more than what we were going through in Indian Day School.”
The abusive treatment went beyond just not being able to speak their own language, Ben said of the confusing time for young people where mixed messages would be received. They would quietly and behind closed doors speak Sm’algyax with their grandparents or parents. But always in hushed tones as the fear of being reported and disciplined was a constant in their minds.
Ben said he was cautious about speaking the language, and even though he said his parents and grandparents said they understood, his father didn’t know before passing away a few years ago the full extent of what the children were subjected to in school.
“It was getting kind of scary … I didn’t know if the school would hear … I didn’t want to get into trouble. But, we would always get into trouble if someone else spoke the language, like a friend in our classroom or a family member,”.
He said the ‘trouble’ would take the form of mostly strapping with a thick leather strap about a quarter-inch thick.
“Sometimes it would be the yardstick over the hand or the pointer sticks. You’d get things thrown at you. That kind of stuff,” Ben said.
The last time he remembers getting the strap was in high school when one of his friends did something and he took the blame.
“You know, I just kind of grew up thinking that I shouldn’t be pointing the finger at someone else. So I took the blame,” he said all the while thinking that strapping was a thing of the past and had been done away with as he was almost an adult.
Ben said all of the elements of his youth and life experiences have made him who he is. After captaining the Metlakatla water taxi for more than 26 years he said he made sure that children got to school in all weather – the graduation rate even went up. He was on the verge of deciding to retire when he knew the importance of taking the job in the school district to make a change and be a Sm’algyax fluency language speaker.
“That’s why I take my job seriously now because I work in the school district teaching the Sm’algyax language.”
“I took this job, because of the Indian and residential school era. Because the kids were getting punished for using their own language,” he said. “I just don’t want our kids today to go through the same thing and get hurt for using the language.”
Ben went for years without speaking the Sm’algyax language and can’t remember exactly how many years that actually is but his brother, who passed away just two weeks ago, was a fluent speaker.
“He never believed in losing the language if you are willing to hold on to it,” Ben said.
Growing up with the language in his home community, with parents and grandparents on both sides of the family tree speaking it daily, Ben said he understood every word when they started talking among themselves.
“I just learned at home listening to them. I never realized that I would be remembering all of that after so many years of not speaking it,” he said.
Ben said he sits students down and explains the true stories, which some people call the ‘stories of tradition’. He said the students always sit down and listen with attentiveness when he tells the stories in the Sm’algyax language.
“There’s better ways to handle a person or a student now. They already know they’re making a mistake. So you don’t make it so they don’t want to come back to school again. When I hear they are doing something wrong, I will just sit down and talk with them. They always listen.”
K-J Millar | Journalist
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