Sanford and Marlana Williams. Submitted photo.

The silence of Sanford Williams: B.C. master carver and his wife navigate racism

Indigenous carver and residential school survivor didn’t know how to speak up against discrimination

Master carver Sanford Williams is well known among art circles across Canada. His carvings adorn the walls of notable institutions world over.

He not only comes from a lineage of renowned carvers, but his people – the Mowachaht First Nation from Yuquot (Friendly Cove) on the west coast of Vancouver Island – have a rich 4,000-year-old history. Yuquot is where Captain James Cook’s arrived in 1778 and ‘first contact’ is recorded between Europeans and Vancouver Island First Nations.

But that legacy is brought crumbling down every time Sanford faces discrimination – which has been a steady reality throughout his life.

And every instance has made him relive the trauma of his time at residential school, the sexual and physical abuse he endured there and the centuries of mistreatment that his people have witnessed through colonization.

RELATED: ‘Vile’: Officials condemn reaction to Cowichan First Nations COVID outbreak

RELATED: Anti-Indigenous racism embedded in B.C. healthcare system: report

Since he was a young man, employees at retail outlets have followed him around in stores to make sure that he’s not “stealing” or intoxicated.

When he is out his wife Marlana – who is not First Nations – servers and clerks either ignore or hassle him, and question his ability to make a purchase until Marlana drifts to his side.

Sanford is now 54, but he has never retaliated nor spoken out against the discrimination. This is a trait he says he shares with many other residential school survivors in Canada who either “shrug it off” or “learned to deal with it.”

“I didn’t know how to speak up,” he said, adding that he always ended up feeling like a “really bad person.”

It’s a feeling that constantly follows him around mostly in cities. On the west coast of Vancouver Island, he is most comfortable with his family and friends – First Nations or not – without being judged.

“But when I leave that environment, I can feel the change right away.”

Sanford silently burns inside with hurt and anger at the way society treats Indigenous people. He only began venting about it, when he met Marlana, who over the years helped him articulate and speak out these feelings.

“He won’t say anything but in his mind he’s thinking, ‘I am not a drunk, I’m a world-class artist, why are you treating me like I’m beneath you when you don’t even know the person I am?” she said.

Marlana said that as a “white woman married to an Indigenous man”, although she is not the one experiencing racism, she feels its ripple effect of it, especially when her husband is mistreated.

On social media, ignorant people take every excuse to perpetrate racism against First Nations, she said.

”They try to find a way to explain their racism without saying that they’re racist.”

In a recent altercation on social media, Marlana received flak for defending Sanford and his family in a conversation about the poor quality of drinking water in First Nation communities. She said commentators refused to acknowledge the racism in their statements instead calling her a “liberal” and adding “everything triggers you.”

Both Sanford and Marlana want people to research and go back to history before they propagate stereotypes and misconceptions. But sometimes asking the crowd to research and look at the full picture also backfires. They see it as an insult as nobody likes to be told that they don’t have all the information. Those who make discriminatory remarks are ignorant about the cruelty of the past and the ongoing issues that First Nations communities continue to face.

“The problem is that too many people are touting free speech, or using that as an excuse to say hurtful things,” said Sanford.

Sanford said that those who racially profile natives as drunkards, don’t realize that many Indigenous people historically resorted to alcoholism to cope with the trauma inflicted on them in residential schools. ”

There’s a need for more constructive dialogues between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, said Marlana and added that people entering these dialogues must exercise caution.

“There are a lot of First Nations people that were abused in residential school and they don’t have the communication skills. They have got it all in their mind and they want to let it out but don’t know how.”

If the other side joins this conversation with fixed opinions and without the intention to listen and understand,it’s meaningless, she said.

For more news from Vancouver Island and beyond delivered daily into your inbox, please click here.

First Nationsracism

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

Just Posted

B.C. Finance Minister Selina Robinson outlines the province’s three-year budget in Victoria, April 20, 2021. (B.C. government video)
B.C. deficit to grow by $19 billion for COVID-19 recovery spending

Pandemic-year deficit $5 billion lower than forecast

FILE – Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have agreed to sign a memorandum on rights and title with B.C. and Ottawa, but elected chiefs are demanding it be called off over lack of consultation. (Thom Barker photo)
Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, Lake Babine Nation get provincial funding for land, title rights

Government says it’s a new, flexible model for future agreements between Canada, B.C. and First Nations.

The property on which a residential school (pictured) that was torn down years ago in Lower Post is to be the location of a cultural centre. (Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre photo)
Lower Post residential school building to be demolished, replaced with cultural centre

Project to be funded by federal and provincial governments, Daylu Dena Council

Photo collage of loved ones lost to substance use and overdose. (Photo courtesy Moms Stop The Harm)
B.C. overdose deaths still rising 5 years after public health emergency declared

Moms Stop the Harm calls on B.C. to provide safe supply in response to deadly illicit drug use

Restaurant patrons enjoy the weather on a patio in Vancouver, B.C., Monday, April 5, 2021. The province has suspended indoor dining at restaurants and pubs until at least April 19 in B.C. due to a spike in COVID-19 numbers. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. sets new COVID-19 daily record with 1,293 cases Thursday

New order allows workplace closures when infections found

FILE – NDP Leader John Horgan, right, and local candidate Mike Farnworth greet one another with an elbow bump during a campaign stop in Coquitlam, B.C., on Friday, September 25, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. won’t be using random individual road stops to enforce travel rules: Safety Minister

Minister Mike Farnworth says travel checks only being considered at major highway junctions, ferry ports

A man pauses at a coffin after carrying it during a memorial march to remember victims of overdose deaths in Vancouver. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. announces historic half-billion-dollar funding for overdose crisis, mental health

Of it, $152 million will be used to address the opioid crisis and see the creation of 195 new substance use treatment beds

Children’s backpacks and shoes are seen at a CEFA (Core Education and Fine Arts) Early Learning daycare franchise, in Langley, B.C., on Tuesday May 29, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. budget to expand $10-a-day child care, but misses the mark on ‘truly universal’ system

$111 million will be used to fund 3,750 new $10-a-day spaces though 75 additional ChildCareBC universal prototype sites over the next three years.

Mak Parhar speaks at an anti-mask rally outside the Vancouver Art Gallery on Sunday, Nov. 1, 2020. Parhar was arrested on Nov. 2 and charged with allegedly violating the Quarantine Act after returning from a Flat Earth conference held in Geenville, South Carolina on Oct. 24. (Flat Earth Focker/YouTube.com screenshot)
Judge tosses lawsuit of B.C. COVID-denier who broke quarantine after Flat Earth conference

Mak Parhar accused gov, police of trespass, malfeasance, extortion, terrorism, kidnapping and fraud

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

Ambulance paramedic in full protective gear works outside Lion’s Gate Hospital, March 23, 2020. Hospitals are seeing record numbers of COVID-19 patients more than a year into the pandemic. (The Canadian Press)
B.C.’s COVID-19 infection rate declines, 849 cases Tuesday

Up to 456 people now in hospital, 148 in intensive care

Christy Clark, who was premier from 2011 to 2017, is the first of several present and past politicians to appear this month before the Cullen Commission, which is investigating the causes and impact of B.C.’s money-laundering problem over the past decade. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)
Christy Clark says she first learned of money-laundering spike in 2015

The former B.C. premier testified Tuesday she was concerned the problem was ‘apparently at an all-time high’

Most Read