Elderly man looks at the camera, there is a town behind him

Acclaimed First Nations healer and therapist wins Reconciliation Award

Canada’s National Observer, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

After leaving residential school in the late 1950s, Klith-waa-taa would wade into a frigid river to brush himself with sacred cedar branches, cleansing away the trauma and negativity imposed upon him as a child. 

The traditional practice he learned as a boy at his grandfather’s side became vital to Klith-waa-taa, or Dr. Barney Williams, during his healing and path to sobriety at age 26 in 1965. 

“We would go into a river to bathe and ask for strength, but also to ask the Creator to look out for other people that needed help,” said Williams. 

“We usually go for four rounds in the water. The last round is for yourself — the first three are for other people.” 

The ceremony and other traditional teachings learned from his grandparents and other Indigenous healers or “gifted ones” formed the cornerstone of Williams’ own recovery, and the 84-year-old’s lifelong approach and commitment to helping others overcome their own pain or addictions. 

Renowned for his decades of expertise in integrating traditional teachings with mental health care, the pre-eminent healer and therapist is one of six people receiving the 2023 Lieutenant Governor’s BC Reconciliation Award

The award recognizes those who have demonstrated exceptional leadership, integrity and commitment to reconciliation while inspiring others on their own ongoing journey of reconciliation, said Lt.-Gov. Janet Austin in a statement. 

“The recipients demonstrate commitment to community, education, and recognizing the challenges of the past while honouring those who came before us,” Austin said. 

“They are an inspiration to me, and to all British Columbians, in their call to do the meaningful work of reconciliation and support its transformative power to create real change.” 

A hereditary leader of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation and the Nuu-chah-nulth Peoples on western Vancouver Island, Williams was extremely moved upon getting the call from Austin about the award, even shedding some tears of joy during their conversation. 

“She let me cry, said she understood, and let me go through that moment,” Williams said. 

It’s gratifying to know the challenges and obstacles he’d faced during his life and career had been helpful for others’ journey, he said. 

“I didn’t realize how many hearts I touched, and I think the recognition I’m getting is really humbling,” he said. 

“Certainly, I’m proud of what I’ve done, but what I did was because of what I believed in my heart, and for my spirit.”  

Williams, whose mother died when he was a toddler, was raised by his grandparents before being sent at age six to residential school for 12 years, where he endured and witnessed sexual assault and abuse. 

His first eight years were spent at Christie Indian Residential School on Meares Island near Tofino, with the remainder at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School — where in 2021, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced the discovery of as many as 215 suspected unmarked graves of children who’d attended the institution. 

Williams struggled with alcohol use starting in his teens to cope with the scars of residential school, but now has celebrated 58 years of sobriety. 

After an accident ended his career in the logging industry, he returned to school to get an academic education in counselling, where he put his personal experience as a residential school survivor and knowledge of traditional healing to use. 

Starting work with Canada’s Indian Affairs, Williams worked as a councillor in numerous communities before moving on to notable positions as an executive director and social service administrator specializing in youth, community prevention, crisis intervention and addictions. 

From 2008 to 2015, Williams served as a member of the Survivor’s Committee for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), hearing thousands of residential survivors’ stories and offering cultural and spiritual guidance. 

It was both a powerful and painful experience, Williams said. 

“I shed many tears, but there was power in the fact we were able to tell and have people believe our story,” he said. 

“For me, it was also to know that I was not alone.” 

Williams’ other achievements involved establishing a ground-breaking counselling program for Indigenous Peoples at Vancouver Island University that intertwined traditional healing with western approaches to grow a spectrum of culturally responsive health care.

In 2017, he received an honorary doctorate in laws from the University of Victoria, acknowledging his exceptional achievements. And in 2022, he received the Courage to Come Back Award for his contributions deepening the understanding of addiction, trauma and healing within First Nations communities. 

Williams is pleased with the increasing recognition that long-lived traditional knowledge and methods employed by elders and cultural healers are therapeutic, Williams said. 

Additionally, while society’s general understanding of residential schools and the impacts of colonialism is growing, reconciliation is still a profoundly personal journey for each individual to undertake, he added. 

It’s not a burden Indigenous people should be responsible for.

“It’s not for someone like me, that’s a survivor, to tell people they have to reconcile,” he said. 

“It’s a personal thing that’s got nothing to do with me or any other native person.” 

Many Canadians are conscious of the dark history of colonialism and have started an ongoing process of reconciliation, especially after the TRC process and the confirmation of suspected gravesites in Kamloops, Williams said. 

But the greatest hurdle to reconciliation is still ignorance and denialism, he said, pointing to the recent reports that some people intended to dig up the Kamloops graves to prove Indigenous children weren’t buried there. 

“I didn’t talk about my abuse to get people to feel sorry for me,” Williams said. 

“I talked about it to heal, so that I could live a life without those demons that were part of my life for many years.” 

The process provided him with a solid understanding of what reconciliation means to him. It’s something he hopes all people, Indigenous and not, are willing to undertake. 

“I hope that people come to understand and believe that this needs to happen across the country, and for Canada to embrace it.” 

Top image credit: Klith-waa-taa, Dr. Barney Williams, at home in Campbell River, is getting recognition for a long counselling career that incorporated traditional knowledge to treat trauma and addictions in Indigenous communities. – Rochelle Baker, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

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