Mel Bevan, Kitselas elder, is settling in to write and relax after a long illustrious career. He is seen here on April 11, 2018 at UNBC Terrace where he delivered a lecture series for an elder-in-residence program. (Rod Link photo)

Mel Bevan, Kitselas elder, is settling in to write and relax after a long illustrious career. He is seen here on April 11, 2018 at UNBC Terrace where he delivered a lecture series for an elder-in-residence program. (Rod Link photo)

Skeena Voices | Resting, reflecting, writing after long career

Kitselas elder Mel Bevan spent decades fighting for Indigenous rights and services

Kitselas elder Mel Bevan, 79, has had a long, illustrious career in politics, management and community building. Now he is settling in to reflect and write about his experiences.

Bevan has done plenty of work in national politics, including as a campaign co-chair for Phil Fontaine, who was National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations from 2003 to 2009. Bevan was part of the group that created Canada’s First Nations Fiscal Management Act, he helped establish the Centre for First Nations Governance and he assisted with a review of land management policy at Canada’s former Department of Indian Affairs.

He has also done much work provincially and locally. Bevan was instrumental in the creation of Canada’s First Nations Radio (CFNR) and he helped establish two legal service centres in the Northwest.

He also served as chief negotiator for Kitselas First Nation during self-governance negotiations that lead to an agreement-in-principle between Kitselas, the provincial government and the federal government, paving the way for a formal treaty (which is still in the works).

“There’s not much more I can do, other than maybe write stuff, maybe record things that people can read,” Bevan told The Terrace Standard.

He’s now working on a book that contains lessons he’s learned in his decades of work with First Nations across the country, with a focus on the shortcomings of the reserve system.

Bevan said that many of the projects he’s worked on over the years, including the legal service centres he helped set up and an Indigenous housing program he worked on through the Kermode Friendship Society, have been changed from independent, Indigenous-led projects into provincial or federal government programs.

“All the work I’ve done over the years, all the things we’ve managed to do, the big problem is trying to make it permanent,” he said. “Native people are not part of the fabric of Canada. We’re outside the fabric of Canada, right, so if you get a sympathetic government you can get things like social housing or law centres, things like that, but if the government turns unsympathetic, it just disappears, and that happens to everything.”

“The only thing that actually stays permanent is people on reserves that suffer from this.”

Bevan said that in his writing he also hopes to continue to record some of his knowledge of Sm’algyax, his first language and the language of the Tsimshian people. The language has changed significantly since he was a boy, becoming fused with the English language, Bevan said.

“The old meaning is disappearing, once people like me [go,] and there’s not too many of us left,” he said. “When people learn it today, they’re basically speaking English.”

He gave the example of a Sm’algyax word that today is translated to the English word ‘chair.’

“Except they never had chairs, all it really means a top, something to sit on. Could be a rock, or a stump, or a log, or a cedar mat,” he said. “Those are the meanings that have disappeared.”

“My point there wasn’t to change what is taught now. You can’t change it. I just wanted to record the old language.”

Sm’algyax suffered a blow because of Canadian government assimilation tactics, Bevan said.

“They tried to beat it out of us in school, our language, wouldn’t allow us to speak it. People got strapped if they spoke their language, but we always spoke it at home. My grandmother never spoke a word of English. Nothing,” he said. “We pretended we were conforming.”

Bevan said he hasn’t really spoken old-style Sm’algyax since his mother died almost 50 years ago.

In addition to writing, Bevan plans to take this summer off, to be “lazy,” he said with a laugh.

The break is well-deserved. Bevan has been working ever since he was a young man.

“There was no such thing as a teenager back then,” he said.

Bevan started his working life at a local mill.

“Mainly I worked in sawmills, I spent 10 years in Skeena Forest Products. I started out as a labourer, and ended up being a shift supervisor. I ran the mill at night.”

Back then it was hard for Indigenous people to find work because they were not accepted by mainstream society, Bevan said. But the late Bill McRae, who managed Skeena Sawmills for decades, would readily hire Indigenous people to work at the mill.

“He grew up amongst native people. He hired all the native people, so there was a whole bunch of us that worked there, native people from all over,” Bevan said. “He helped a lot of people.”

Working at the mill was just one way that Bevan started to build a network that would eventually lead to his later career in management and politics.

Prior to working at the mill, Bevan spent a year in hospital after contracting tuberculosis, from 1956 to 1957. He was fortunate to receive treatment for his tuberculosis.

“I was actually lucky, if you want to call it that. The people that got it before me, say a few years before me, there was [no treatment,] so they mainly just died,” he said.

It was an all-Indigenous hospital where he made many friends.

“The reason Indian hospitals came into existence was the Province wouldn’t take native people in their hospitals. They’d just send them home,” he said.

But a doctor began lobbying the Province to use Army hospitals that had been set up during the Second World War to treat Indigenous people, Bevan said. One such Army hospital was in Terrace. There, Bevan met people from Telegraph Creek to Haida Gwaii to Lake Babine.

Those connections, and many others he made along the way, propelled him toward the national stage, Bevan said.

In retrospect, Bevan said, there is at least one key point he learned in all his work and travels: Indigenous people do not want to be assimilated.

“The most important thing to everybody, all across the country, is to stay who they are,” he said. “The Haida, they don’t want to be anything but Haida. The Nisga’a, they don’t want to be anything but Nisga’a.”



jake.wray@terracestandard.com

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

“Skeena,” by John Hudson and Paul Hanslow is one of five fonts in the running to become the default for Microsoft systems and Office programs. (Black Press Media File Photo)
Font named after Skeena River could become the next Microsoft default

One of the five new fonts will replace Calibri, which has been Microsoft’s default since 2007

FILE – Residents of the Kahnawake Mohawk Territory southwest of Montreal continue to monitor a blockade leading to blocked railroad tracks that pass through their community as they protest in support of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs on Sunday, March 1, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Peter McCabe
B.C. Supreme Court rejects Wet’suwet’en bid to toss LNG pipeline certificate

Opposition last year by Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs set off Canada-wide rail blockades

B.C.’s public health restrictions on non-essential travel are reinforced by orders effective April 23, 2021 to stay within your own regional health authority except for essential travel such as work and medical appointmens. (B.C. government)
B.C.’s COVID-19 non-essential travel ban takes effect, $575 fines approved

Checks on highways, ferries between Lower Mainland, Vancouver Island, Interior

Jose Marchand prepares Pfizer COVID-19 vaccination doses at a mobile clinic for members of First Nations and their partners, in Montreal, Friday, April 30, 2021. The National Advisory Committee on Immunization is coming under fire after contradicting the advice Canadians have been receiving for weeks to take the first vaccine against COVID-19 that they’re offered. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Trudeau says he is glad he got AstraZeneca, vaccines are only way out of pandemic

‘The most important thing is to get vaccinated with the first vaccine offered to you’

B.C.’s provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Dip in COVID-19 cases with 572 newly announced in B.C.

No new deaths have been reported but hospitalized patients are up to 481, with 161 being treated in intensive care

Solar panels on a parking garage at the University of B.C. will be used to separate water into oxygen and hydrogen, the latter captured to supply a vehicle filling station. (UBC video)
UBC parkade project to use solar energy for hydrogen vehicles

Demonstration project gets $5.6M in low-carbon fuel credits

FILE – A student arrives at school as teachers dressed in red participate in a solidarity march to raise awareness about cases of COVID-19 at Ecole Woodward Hill Elementary School, in Surrey, B.C., on Tuesday, February 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. ‘should be able to’ offer 1st dose of COVID vaccine to kids 12+ by end of June: Henry

Health Canada authorized the vaccine for younger teens this morning

A woman in the Harrison Mills area was attacked by a cougar on Tuesday, May 4. B.C. Conservation Officers killed two male cougars in the area; the attack was determined to be predatory in nature. (File photo)
2 cougars killed following attack on woman in Agassiz area

Attack victim remains in hospital in stable condition

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

A woman wears a face mask and shield to curb the spread of COVID-19 while walking in North Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday, January 6, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. CDC updates info, acknowledging small respiratory droplets can spread COVID-19

Large droplets, not aerosols had been fixture of public health messaging for many months

A picture of Shirley Ann Soosay was rendered from a postmortem photographer and circulated on social media. (DDP graphic)
B.C. genealogist key to naming murder victim in decades-old California cold case

In July 1980, Shirley Ann Soosay was raped and stabbed to death

Most Read