Cheam First Nation leader Ernie Crey understands the plight of aboriginal foster children better than most. At age 13 he and his eight siblings were taken from their mother and placed in separate foster homes. In 1997, Crey and Vancouver journalist Suzanne Fournier co-wrote the book Stolen from Our Embrace, a tome that revealed the gritty realities of foster care, residential schools, and other aboriginal issues. Stolen from Our Embrace won the BC Book Prize and the Hubert Evans Prize for nonfiction. It is also required reading for social work, political science, and aboriginal studies in colleges and universities across Canada, including UBC. I came to know Crey after interviewing him for a news story.
What is Ernie up to these days?
Well, I start my days by scanning Facebook and Twitter and reading news sites. My days – well, I still have my hat in the ring. I serve on my tribe’s council and our elections are coming up in November. I’m going to run again and may run for chief councillor. I’m 66, and it’s a lot to consider at my age but I’m still up for it. I’m also the fisheries and media advisor to the Stó:lō Tribal Council. I sit on various boards and foundations, and I lecture frequently at colleges and universities as well. And I still read books, at least two a day; I have for years now.
While vice president of the United Native Nations you decided to help write Stolen from Our Embrace. What motivated you to write the book?
A book publisher phoned me up one day and asked if I’d be interested in writing my autobiography. I contemplated it but I didn’t consider myself high profile enough or accomplished enough for one so I said “no thanks.” I had coffee with Suzanne Fournier later and told her about this and she gave me this incredulous look like I was nuts. I didn’t know. So we brainstormed some ideas and decided that my story could be part of a broader collection of stories about aboriginal issues of the day. We revisited [the publisher] and struck a deal, and we went ahead after getting some grants to move the project along. I have to say that Suzanne wrote the bulk of the book. What motivated me to do this was the issues I was dealing with as an advocate. The disproportionate number of aboriginals impoverished, in foster care, and incarcerated; the high rates of alcoholism and drug addiction; residential schools. I wanted the book to fill the gap between the perception and reality of aboriginal people’s lives.
Why was it important for you to make your own story a part of the book, and tell me about how challenging it was to do this?
It was very, very hard. I was unearthing painful memories of my father’s death, my mother’s drinking, being incarcerated, and all of us being apprehended into foster care. The hardest thing was remembering being apart from my family after I was taken away. After I was in foster care for two years I saved enough money to get the bus to my home in Hope. It was bittersweet [returning] though because the rest of my brothers and sisters had been taken away. It was hard knowing that there would be no homecoming for me. Everyone was gone and I had no home to come back to. And as hard as it was to write my story, it was also necessary because it was illustrative of the book’s broader themes.
Could you explain the writing process you used when you penned your story in the book?
I almost hate to say it, but it was already there in my head. It’s like I watched my whole life on a screen, like a movie or a PowerPoint presentation. I just wrote it out. Then I revised it for grammar, spelling, and punctuation. My co-author, Suzanne, combed through it after and tightened it up. And the book editors pared it back while keeping the story intact. I ended my story on a note of hope. I wanted to convey that you may have lived a difficult life, but I tried to leave people with a sense that you can endure this, survive it, and live a full life.
Your sister Dawn’s DNA was found on Willy Pickton’s farm seven years after the book was published. How did this impact you?
The authorities came to see me and showed me a map of the property. Her DNA was found on an article of clothing inside Pickton’s trailer. That’s where her life ended. It troubles my family and I still, trying to settle how to live with it. Pickton took her life, but in a sense she stopped living before that. The book chronicled the events that led to her end.
You’ve managed to stay grounded even though you lived a difficult early life. How have you been able to do this?
Because it was what my dad asked me to do. He always wanted me to do the right thing. To be responsible and to be a good guy. And I remember my grandmother saying to me “Don’t be a drinker.” I see staying grounded as remaining faithful to my parents and to my grandmother. I strive every day to be true to the things they taught me.
In your book, you raised red flags about aboriginal child welfare issues long before they gained prominence. Why did you choose this theme to write about?
Because they were a big part of my life. I was a welfare kid, as were my siblings. I think about all the other families who lost their kids too. Some of those foster kids, they grew up to be successful. Others would die young and violent, though. I think about the guys who died often. It doesn’t ever go away.
How have the issues you wrote about changed since the book was published?
Things have changed – they’ve gotten worse. The number of kids being taken into care is so big now and it’s growing. Sixty per cent of the kids in care are aboriginal. The growth in the youth demographic partly explains it; add poor health care, mental health and poverty into the mix and you get incidents like the recent one in Lillooet. This tells me that the families and communities they come from are in turmoil.
What new aboriginal issues have arisen since Stolen from Our Embrace?
The increasing numbers of aboriginal people who are leaving their First Nations to live in cities. They’re arriving in cities in increasingly larger numbers. With housing being so expensive we’re seeing the fallout in the form of the homeless camp at Oppenheimer last year. Also, business and resource development is another issue that has become prominent. And unpacking the impact of the Tsilhqot’in decision is another key issue as well.
You’ve inspired and educated a generation about aboriginal child welfare issues. Who are some authors who inspire you?
I’m a fan of several authors. I read books about Native American leaders and historical figures. Vine Deloria, Jr. inspires me; Harold Cardinal, who wrote The Unjust Society, is another. And when I was young I quite liked the writings of Pauline Johnson, and Mariah Campbell, who wrote Half Breed. As a kid, I read Somerset Maugham, [Ernest] Hemingway, [John] Steinbeck, and Robert Frost. I also read about Gandhi, Theodore Roosevelt, John L. Lewis, and Martin Luther King. Later, I read Fanon and Freire (prominent thinkers of the pedagogy of the oppressed) and Saul Alinsky’s works.
What advice do you have for budding aboriginal authors, or authors in general about aboriginal issues?
You need to learn to become a voracious reader and a good writer. Write all the time. And you gain more experience once you have all this reading behind you, you come to realize you’re on a different plateau. You find you are a capable writer and researcher; that you have presence of mind; and you know what literature is out there. And get grounded in your own particular people. Always write from your own experience, from your own First Nation. Later, you can stretch your writing reach. Read a lot of the writings of others but take your own approach.
Wawmeesh G. Hamilton is an award winning journalist/photographer based in Vancouver. He’s garnered three BC-Yukon Community Newspaper Association awards and three Canadian Community Newspaper Association awards, all for writing and photography. He is a member of the Hupacasath First Nation in Port Alberni, B.C. Twitter: @Wawmeesh