Resolve: The Story of the Chelsea Family and a First Nation Community’s Will to Heal
October 28, 2021
Review By Heather MacLeod
The remains of residential schools are scattered throughout Canada. Indeed, there are only three provinces (Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland) that did not house residential schools. There is not an Indigenous community, family, or individual that has—at this point in history—escaped the devastating effects of this government funded and church operated attempt at assimilation. Canada marked the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on 30 September 2021, a federal statutory holiday implemented to acknowledge and consider the remnants, and all that may involve, of residential schools in Canada. Of course, the legacy left to the citizens of Canada by these schools varies across the nation: it is, at once, a collective, cultural, community, and individual inheritance. Andy and Phyllis Chelsea’s life stories are embedded within the tragedies of the residential school system, as are—quite clearly articulated in their book—their community’s. Theirs is a story of rising-up against the odds, of recovering self, family, and community; theirs is a story of resistance and celebration.
Carolyn Parks Mintz is the author of The Eye of the Dragon: Women, Cancer and Courage (EbbTide Publishing, 2004) and received the Global Calgary Woman of Vision award. She is a freelance journalist and public speaker and was nominated as a Woman of Distinction twice. A fortuitous meeting between Parks Mintz and Ivy Chelsea led to her work with Andy and Phyllis Chelsea and the book, Resolve.
Andy and Phyllis Chelsea met in Williams Lake, BC at the Saint Joseph’s Indian Residential School, as it was known at the time. As part of the Canadian Indian residential school system, Saint Joseph’s operated from 1891 to 1981. The deaths of students Duncan Sticks and Augustine Allan, the investigations that revealed starvation, the neglect of the buildings, and the physical, emotional, and spiritual abuse of students are all recounted in the narrative, signaling not anomalies within the so-called schools but the status quo. This is where the couple met, this is where they spent their childhood away from their families, homes, and communities, and this is what shaped them until, as their story unfolds, they chose to carve out a new way forward.
In 1964, Andy and Phyllis married. They, for how could they not, carried the trauma of their experiences at Saint Joseph’s into their marriage and into their family. Parks Mintz writes:
Many of the couple’s problems arose from all that was hidden, they report—all that was left unspoken about the years of neglect and abuse. Given what was done to both male and female students by the residential school’s priests and nuns, their ability to relate to the opposite sex and to function within intimate adult relationships had been terribly compromised, Phyllis says. (74)
In 1971, at the age of seven, their daughter, Ivy, pronounced to her parents that she and her brothers would be moving to their grandmother’s home. Ivy told her mother and father that this decision was predicated upon their drinking. Andy and Phyllis Chelsea chose sobriety to save, protect, and defend their family. This tantamount movement between sobriety and preservation of self and family led the couple into a lifetime of activism and safeguarding their community, Alkali Lake Esk’et First Nation.
Their book resolves to continue their activism, for it is an act of resistance and resilience. It documents their work to eliminate alcoholism, to transcend intergenerational trauma, to address and fight against the host of inequities that their community of Alkali Lake lived and experienced. The Chelsea story reveals degrees to activism that are, of course, surprising and uplifting; however, it is their and their community’s refusal to be defined by governments and other settler institutions that exposes the hard and ongoing work involved in resisting stereotypes and overcoming discrimination and racism. For Andy and Phyllis Chelsea, the way forward was through fighting the system from within:
Given the clear evidence of harm created by residential schools, it is mind boggling that Canadian governments would embark on yet another program of separating Indigenous children from their families.
Andy and Phyllis were directly involved in protecting children of the Esk’et First Nation from being removed from their family homes, they intervened by taking action, always their go-to solution when facing injustice. (88)
It is surprising that rather than directly gesturing towards systemic and ongoing racism, Andy and Phyllis Chelsea take the approach of asking how to dismantle and how to resurrect. Unlike many other programs, what Andy and Phyllis Chelsea address is what comes after—what comes after treatment for alcoholism; what comes after retrieving children from the residential school system, from the Sixties Scoop? Thus, they seek to address emerging and resurging systemic racism against the Indigenous peoples of Canada but also carefully consider how to mend, heal, and resurrect their community. The utter perseverance of the members of their village, their own efforts, and this story inspire all who struggle, all who seek to overcome, all who wish to acknowledge—perhaps, on Indigenous People’s Day—the harrowing effects of the residential schools of Canada. May we all be so resolved.
Parks Mintz, Carolyn with Andy and Phyllis Chelsea. Resolve: The Story of the Chelsea Family and a First Nation Community’s Will to Heal. Caitlin Press. 224 pp. $24.95 paper.