Joseph Albert Brooks is an independent 94-years-young. He still cooks his own meals and mops his own floors, though he would like some help with that. Many Prince Ruperts residents can see him zipping around town on his electric scooter which he’s proud to tell you that he recently purchased for $350.
The scooter assists him to get to longer distances, while he uses a walker around his apartment to do his chores. He said he tried contacting social services once to request some help but it didn’t get any results. He now just gets by on his own and struggles with the two flights of stairs to get to the laundry room in his apartment building.
During the winter he doesn’t get out much, because the ice, salt, and gravel make it too dangerous for him, which is the complete opposite of his early life outdoors. He said he needs new wheels for his scooter because they are starting to slip, but he can’t get to Terrace to purchase them by himself. The wheels bump sending vibrations up his back with which he has pain issues and came from a life of labour.
He spends his time shut-in reading history books, but was more than happy to visit The Northern View to talk. Initially, under the impression that he was going to be talking about a history project he is working on, he said he wasn’t ready to talk about it just yet as some politician in Victoria is helping with it. He is researching about his father’s William (Billy) Brooks life who worked for surveyors and engineers Ritchie and Agnew, and also helped to make bronze metal.
It was soon cleared up that it was his own life that was the topic of interest. Nonplussed, he adjusted his hearing aids and turned the topic on a dime to tell his almost century of a story.
“I was born in Port Essington on October 11, 1926,” he said. He was the eldest of nine children living with his mother and father. He was born of the Gitxsan nation through his mother’s lineage, and was later adopted by his uncle into the Tsimshian nation. Joseph’s traditional First Nations name is Weex-Bahlaa, meaning the Great Southwest Wind.
Joseph and his siblings were raised and educated in Port Essington in a place that is now just a ghost town of an era long past.
He did not attend the residential schools many other First Nations children did because of the resilience of his father, he said.
“They came to the house. They wanted us. My dad said no, that he would look after us,” he said. His father gave his word and promise that he would make sure his children attended school in the village.
“I first went to Indian Day School,” he said. “But then the school teacher died. They couldn’t get a replacement. So, they put us in the English school off the reserve. We went to school there.”
The Port Essington Elementary School became British Columbia’s first large-scale integration initiative in 1947 and led to the permanent closure of the Port Essington Indian Day School.
Joseph said he enjoyed his life growing up in Port Essiginton, which had a culturally diverse population.
“We’d make lots of friends. I was good friends with the Japanese kids, the Swedes, Norwegians, and those from Finland, some English, as well as the Gitxsan that were still there.”
Joseph spoke fondly of his father, who taught him how to use trap lines when he was 12-years-old and in grade six.
“He taught me how to handle a gun. He gave me this short little single shot .22.”
Joseph wanted to ‘get in’ with the other kids who were shooting ducks and geese, to earn a bit of money on the side by selling the birds to local residents.
“A goose was a $1.75 and a mallard was seventy-five cents,” he said.
With a memory as sharp as a pinpoint, he said he remembers his mother getting up each morning to cook the family breakfast and get the children ready for school.
“I would go out into the woods and take off all my clothes, and put my spare clothes on. My gun was hidden in the woodshed,” he said.
After leaving he would walk behind the house, through the bush, down a hill, past a graveyard and across two creeks to a third, where he would wait for the tide. The ducks and geese would soon come in where he could hunt them.
“I would go and sell them to the Japanese, and then run back through the bush making sure no one saw me get back to the woodshed by afterschool time.”
One day the school teacher and the principal stopped by the house to tell his mother that when his dad came home from logging and hunting he needed to take Joseph to the doctor in Prince Rupert. They were concerned he had been sick for so long.
“My mom never said anything to me. When my dad came home we were having dinner, she said, ‘he hasn’t been going to school for two weeks, and I knew there was something going to happen.”
Joseph said when the family was finished eating dinner, his dad sent the other siblings away and told him to stay and sit. He said his dad told him was disappointed as he wanted a good education for his son.
“He never spanked me,” Joseph said. Instead, his punishment was to chop a felled hemlock tree for wood for the whole of the next day.
The following day he was woken up at 4:30 by his dad who cooked him breakfast, told him to pack his clothes and take his blanket.
“He said, ‘we’re leaving.’ So, we went up the river trapping,” Joseph said.
In his father’s spare time he would cut trees and sell them to the mill for extra money, and he taught Joseph many skills on how to survive. In fall they would trap and hand log.
“In the winter we would go down the coast and fish for halibut and dig for clams. We would always get enough for the shut-in elders. He always did extra hunting and fishing to take care of their needs.”
“He was a good hunter. He provided food for us by living off the land,” the elder said. He learned a lot from his father, who died in 1948. Joseph took over looking after his mom.
He worked in fishing for while and had a boat with his brothers until it became too worn out to repair. He did various jobs early on.
In 1961 he lost everything in the fire that razed the whole town of Port Essington. He said as flames burned around them his mother packed everything she could into a box. They wrapped it all in a blanket for carrying and fled into the woods.
“The survivors all ran. We went up into the bush. We sat there until the fire went out. People were looking for us,” he said.
“We sat near the graveyard and sat there during the fire. It was so devastating for us. My mother cried because we lost our house. We came into Prince Rupert on a snag boat three or four days after that.”
He has lived in Prince Rupert ever since. The day he arrived in Prince Rupert he got a job at Miller Bay Hospital as a kitchen hand. He worked there for a while extending his efforts to prove himself. Feeling unappreciated with not even a ‘thank-you’ he walked off the job one day.
The same day was offered a job on a logging towboat, but he had no boots to be able to start and no resources to acquire funds.
He went to a local shoe store and explained his situation. He would be receiving a paycheck shortly. Joseph left the store with a pair of boots and two pairs of socks. It was a time when a handshake was a man’s word and promise to pay.
He would work six-hour shifts as a cook and a deckhand. Six hours on and six hours off, he said.
Joseph got married in the fall of 1961 after the fire relocated him to the city. The couple was married for 13 years and had two children together. Joseph became a single father when his children were two and three. His wife left the children with him and later passed away. After taking a leave of absence from his job he hired a series of babysitters until his children were in school and able to look after themselves.
He retired at the age of 64. Working years lifting boom chains injured his back and left him in pain.
Thirty years later, the First Nations elder, now leads a quieter life and spends his time helping others where he can. He prays for healing for the sick and inflicted who ask for it, and will go to them in times of need.
“I have an abalone shell, in which I burn sage. I offer smudging for their healing,” he said. “I pray for the person who is sick.”
Joseph also will speak at gatherings when asked to do so, sharing his cultural experiences on relevant topics.
For the past year Joseph has spent a lot of time reflecting on his past and the past of his ancestors, he said. COVID-19 has left him lonely.
“Once in a while people will come to visit but with this pandemic … Oh yeah … I get lonesome for my grandparents, my parents, my brothers and sisters. I do a prayer when [I am lonely] and light a smudging. It eases my stress,” he said.
K-J Millar | Journalist
Send K-J email
Like the The Northern View on Facebook
Follow us on Twitter