Dr. Barney Williams recalled stealing some sacramental wine with a couple of other students at Christie Residential School on Meares Island off the coast of Tofino when he was still quite young.
“We proceeded to get plastered,” he said. “We used it as a numbing agent for a while, and pretty soon, for many of us, all of a sudden it was an addiction.”
Williams endured 12 years of abuse at residential schools, as well as the loss of his mother at the tender age of two, so was already fighting from behind when he found himself with a serious alcohol problem in his early to mid-twenties.
But thanks to the timely help of some elders, as well as a will to change, he was able to turn his life around, and help countless others in similarly dire situations.
For his remarkable achievements he is being acknowledged by Coast Mental Health Foundation as the winner of the 2022 Courage To Come Back Award in the addictions category on Saturday, May 14.
The 82-year-old Campbell River resident and member of Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation said he was surprised to hear of the honour.
“I was very emotional when I realized what it was for, and how big a deal it was,” Williams said. “It really moved my spirit to be recognized.
“I’ve been sober 54 years, so it’s been quite a journey.”
The path to where he is, started early on a Friday morning. Williams had been boozing all night the evening previous, and was feeling down on himself. He had trouble keeping jobs, and felt there must be more to life than the misery he was putting himself through.
A local elder who was up early to do a spot of fishing saw Williams and sparked up a conversation.
“He didn’t really say anything about stopping drinking, but I knew that he had stopped, so I asked him what he did,” Williams said.
The elder told the young man about the Alcoholics Anonymous meetings he attended every Friday.
“He said, ‘If you want, I can pick you up and take you with me tonight after I come back in from fishing,’” Williams remembered.
That evening, he wasn’t feeling up for confronting his issues, so tried to leave the house early to go down to the pub.
“I got dressed, and started walking down to the dock, and here was this old man, and he says, ‘You’re on time,’” Williams said. “I was too embarrassed to admit I was going to the bar, so I went to the meeting, and I haven’t looked back.”
The road has been far from easy for Williams. Two years after becoming sober he broke his back in a logging accident, and was out-of-commission for a couple years.
Unable to go back to forestry, Williams made the auspicious decision to go back to school for social work. He completed his practicum at Indigenous and Northern Affairs, and was hired after graduation.
“I was really blessed to get a lot of training,” he said. Williams took in as much information as he could about addiction, and trauma to understand what he himself had experienced.
“All those years I was going through post traumatic stress disorder. It was a big part of my life.”
He credits his grandmother, who raised him, for the encouragement it took to stay on the sobriety track. To help overcome trauma, he combined what he had learned at school, with traditional knowledge passed along to him from her and community elders.
”I began to explore identity as one of the keys to sobriety,” Williams said. “Being able to know who you are and where you come from.
“So I started doing that with ceremonies. We’d go to the river, or do brushings with cedar. I realized all the teachings my granny had given me have a use as part of the therapeutic work.”
He was instrumental in creating a counselling program for Indigenous Peoples at Vancouver Island University. It was one of the first programs to combine traditional knowledge of healing and western approaches.
Williams has also become a leading expert in survivors’ trauma, and served as a committee member for the Truth & Reconciliation Commission.
Sharing his story as an event speaker was difficult at first.
“Initially, I was really not sure I could do that,” he explained. “Having been gone to (residential) school and being told you’re not going to amount to anything didn’t help.”
The first time Williams mustered the courage to get in front of a large audience, he was very well received.
“I thought – holy – I can do this,” he remembers fondly.
It brings him great satisfaction to think of all the people he’s helped since becoming sober, and he hopes that he can help even more in future.
“I just want for people not to give up,” he said. “Everyone who’s going through tough times.
“I don’t go through a day without thinking about people who are suffering. Wherever they may be, I want them to find peace within themselves and beat those demons.”