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.”