Ben Spencer is passing down the art of drumming to his granddaughter Emily Spencer, aged 7, as well as teaching her the Sm’alygax language. (Photo: K-J Millar/The Northern View)

Ben Spencer is passing down the art of drumming to his granddaughter Emily Spencer, aged 7, as well as teaching her the Sm’alygax language. (Photo: K-J Millar/The Northern View)

Heart of our city: Ben Spencer

Teacher of traditional language and Sm’alygax fluency

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
Send K-J email
Like the The Northern View on Facebook
Follow us on Twitter

City of Prince RupertHeart of our City


Ben Spencer made his own drum as well as a smaller one for his one-year-old great-grandson so he can start learning from an early age. (Photo: K-J Millar/The Northern View)

Ben Spencer made his own drum as well as a smaller one for his one-year-old great-grandson so he can start learning from an early age. (Photo: K-J Millar/The Northern View)

Ben Spencer and his wife Theresa Spencer are high school sweethearts and have been married for 50-years in May. (Photo: K-J Millar/The Northern View)

Ben Spencer and his wife Theresa Spencer are high school sweethearts and have been married for 50-years in May. (Photo: K-J Millar/The Northern View)

Just Posted

The Cone Zone campaign is in its 11th year to remind drivers to slow down when approaching roadside workers because roadwork is hazardous. (Photo: supplied )
Cone Zones are for keeping roadside workers safe

Flaggers are present for workers safety and drivers need to be aware - Warren Beal, Adventure Paving

BC Ferries issued a reminder on May 17 that there will be no additional sailings over the Victoria Day weekend and that travel is limited to essential reasons only. (Photo: K-J Millar/The Northern View)
No additional holiday weekend sailings

BC Ferries reminds travellers health orders are in place for essential travel only

Reverend Paul Williams of St. Andrews Cathedral Church stands next to the metal cross showing the enormity of the fabricated piece by a parishioner and stored away for over ten years. The goal is to have the cross mounted to the roof of the sanctuary so it can welcome those entering the harbour. (Photo: K-J Millar/The Northern View)
A cross to bear for the roof of St. Andrews Cathedral Church

A fabricated metal cross made by a parishioner is seeing the light of day after 15 years in storage

Kristy Maier, Prince Rupert mom, SD 52 trustee, basketball treasurer, district PAC liaison said it is important to teach children to be part of the community. (Photo: K-J Millar/The Northern View)
Heart of the City – Kristy Maier

Coming back to her ‘people’ Kristy Maier now teaches little people how to be a community

It doesn’t matter where or how you received a COVID-19 vaccination, to receive the second immunization everyone must register on the ‘Get Vaccinated’ system health officials said, on May 11. While numbers are down Prince Rupert has not yet ‘zero’ cases as of numbers reported for May 2nd to 8th. (Image: BCCDC)
Prince Rupert still not at ‘zero’ COVID-19 cases

For second immunizations everyone in Prince Rupert and region must register, health officials said

A prowling coyote proved no match for a stray black cat who chased it out of a Port Moody parking lot Friday, May 14. (Twitter/Screen grab)
VIDEO: Little but fierce: Cat spotted chasing off coyote by Port Moody police

The black cat is seen jumping out from under a parked car and running the wild animal out of a vacant lot

A forest of dance-protesters outside the BC Legislature on April 11. These participants were doing the Dance for the Ancient Forest in support of the Fairy Creek blockade and against old-growth logging. (Zoë Ducklow/News Staff)
Arrests begin at Fairy Creek blockade on Vancouver Island

Five protesters arrested as RCMP begin to enforce injunction

A thunderstorm pictured in Fraser Valley in 2021. (Black Press Media/Jaimie Grafstrom)
Wildfire concerns sparked after 320+ lightning strikes blasted B.C. yesterday

Approximately one-quarter of the province is currently listed as being at moderate risk of fire

A restaurant server on White Rock’s Marine Drive serves customers on a roadside patio. Indoor dining and recreational travel bans have been in effect since late March in B.C. (Peace Arch News)
B.C.’s COVID-19 infection rate falls to 411 cases Tuesday

360 people in hospital, up slightly, two more deaths

The Banff National Park entrance is shown in Banff, Alta., Tuesday, March 24, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Minister asks Canadians to camp carefully in national parks as season starts

Kitchen shelters in Banff National Park closed, trails on Vancouver Island will only be one-way

Names of those aboard the ship are seen at Komagata Maru monument in downtown Vancouver, on Tuesday, May 18, 2021. The City of Vancouver has issued an apology for its racist role in denying entry to 376 passengers aboard a ship that was forced to return to India over a century ago. Mayor Kennedy Stewart says discrimination by the city had “cruel effects” on the Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims aboard the Komagata Maru, which arrived in Burrard Inlet on May 23, 1914. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Vancouver mayor says sorry for city’s role in turning away South Asians in 1914

Kennedy Stewart has declared May 23 as the annual Komagata Maru Day of Remembrance

A crew of WestCoast WILD Adventures employees tackled an onslaught of litter left at the ‘Locks of Love’ fence at Wally Creek on May 2. (Anne-Marie Gosselin photo)
Litter woes consume popular ‘Locks of Love’ fence on B.C.’s Pacific Rim

Popular view spot near Tofino plagued by people hanging masks and other unwanted garbage

Vincent Doumeizel, senior advisor at the United Nations Global Compact on Oceans, as well as director for the Food Programme for the Lloyd’s Register Foundation, pulls up some sugar kelp seaweed off the French coast in April 2020. He was the keynote speaker during the opening ceremony of the inaugural Seaweed Days Festival. (Vincent Doumeizel/Submitted)
Let’s hear it for seaweed: slimy, unsexy and the world’s greatest untapped food source

Experts talks emerging industry’s challenges and potential at Sidney inaugural Seawood Days Festival

Troy Patterson, a Cadboro Bay 15-year-old, got a virtual meeting with B.C.’s environment minister months after he started an online petition calling for construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline to stop. (Jake Romphf/News Staff)
B.C. teen’s 23,000-name Coastal GasLink petition gets him an audience with the minister

15-year-old Saanich high school student and George Heyman discussed project for about 30 minutes

Most Read