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Walk for Reconciliation hits home with BC Hydro's Mounsey

Darrell Mounsey, BC Hydro senior aboriginal relations coordinator
BC Hydro senior aboriginal relations coordinator Darrell Mounsey, who grew up in Kamloops, shows off a salmon he caught while fishing in Barkley Sound, just past the First Nation Community Elhlateese at Uchucklesaht Inlet.

Simpcw Nation member embraces the present, but can't forget the past

Rob Klovance
bchydro.com

As Darrell Mounsey sits on the patio of a downtown Vancouver cafe, he's asked to think back to the day when he first learned, in some detail, the horrors his mom suffered as a residential school student growing up on a reserve in Barriere, B.C.

"Hearing my mom's story made me very angry and emotional," says Mounsey, a BC Hydro senior aboriginal relations coordinator and proud Secwepemc and member of the Simpcw First Nation north of Kamloops. "Those emotions can start to take you down a course, maybe even a militant one. But I told myself 'Mom is bearing that cross — you don't have to do that'. Keep on doing what you're doing."

For Mounsey, this month's Walk for Reconciliation in Vancouver is a chance to look back while moving another step forward.

Canada's residential school system, which operated from the 1870s through the closing of the last residential school in 1996, saw more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children removed from their families and placed in schools, many forbidden to speak their language and denied their culture.

"Imagine letting go of your child on September 1st and saying, 'See you at Christmas, maybe. Or maybe not. But we'll see you at the end of June," says Mounsey. "See your child for just two months a year? Could you do that? It would rip me apart."

The Walk for Reconciliation, set for Sunday, September 22 is being spearheaded by Reconciliation Canada, a B.C.-based charitable project founded by residential school survivor Chief Dr. Robert Joseph. It's an opportunity for aboriginal people and all Canadians to come together, share their stories and demonstrate to the next generation that we can get it right, move forward together.

The Walk will end a Week of Reconciliation in Vancouver that features statement gathering, traditional ceremonies, survivor gatherings, an education day, witnessing survivor statements, cultural performances and films.

Mounsey is proud of his BC Hydro work as an aboriginal person working with First Nations across B.C. He does not for a minute take for granted the enormous difference between the life he's leading and that of his mom, or the mind-boggling gulf between his mom's school experience and that of his kids, both thriving while attending a great school in West Vancouver.

"I'm fortunate and thankful for the opportunities my kids have," says Mounsey, who works with his wife Moira to hammer home to their teenage son and daughter the importance of academics and sport. "I've just tried to give my kids all the positive things in life, things that are important to me, and get them hanging out with the right crowd."

BC Hydro a leader in aboriginal relations

In 2012, BC Hydro earned a gold level designation for best practices in Aboriginal relations from the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business. That doesn't surprise Mounsey, who in his eight years with the company has seen firsthand how BC Hydro's approach to First Nations has evolved.

Current leading BC Hydro's initiative to install new meters in the homes of Aboriginals across B.C., Mounsey got his start at BC Hydro in Aboriginal Relations, where he sometimes sat across the table from St’at’imc Nation members initially suspicious of BC Hydro's motives.

"There was a lot of animosity there," he says. "You talk to some of the people we negotiate with and they make it quite clear what it was like. The kids were afraid of white people, because the first white person they saw was a contractor in a bulldozer, going through their crop."

Slowly, he built relationships built on the basis of a common background. He knew some of these band leaders because they went to the same schools in Kamloops. He'd talk to them about those school days, about rugby and basketball trips they'd shared.

"And then the last half hour is talking about work," he says. "You're building a relationship, and that's what Hydro has done a really good job at. They've hired the right people to build those relationships. And that's not over a 10-minute coffee break — those relationships are built over 10 two-hour meetings. You learn that you've all come from a place of humility and respect."

'Phenomenal mentors', enormous opportunities

Kamloops wasn't the easiest place to grow up aboriginal back in the 1960s and 70s. But despite troubles at home, and the occasional racial spat settled by a fistfight, Mounsey found the friends and mentors who helped put him on the path to a degree at Washington State and eventually, a Masters degree.

And often, the people who helped him were white. People like his best friend and football buddy Lindsey Karpluk, or the then teacher and future Kamloops MP Nelson Riis, who took the time to read the riot act to a promising first-year student at Cariboo College.

"If this guy's telling me, I'd better listen," says Mounsey, who says Riis taught him the basics of proper research, including how to use a library catalogue. "I realized, 'this guy cares for me', and I owe him something. I'd better not drop the ball on this."

A priority of Mounsey's today is to remind aboriginal youth, including his kids, about the responsibility they have in taking advantage of the opportunities they're given. There's scholarship money for First Nations kids, there's Simpcw helping his kids pay for school trips to Europe and Australia, and there's living proof — in Mounsey and other successful aboriginals persons — of the good things that can happen.

"I go back for high school reunions, and it raises some eyebrows," he says, laughing. "Really? I never thought I'd see you in a suit.' "It's neat to get that recognition."

Back at the reserve in Barriere, the man's a bit of a celebrity. He visits a few times each year, sometimes to hunt, sometimes to fish for sockeye, or sometimes just to drop in and remind friends and relatives on the reserve of the possibilities that exist.

Life in Barriere, particularly since the wildfire of 2003 that burned the Louis Creek sawmill — the area's big employer — has been anything but easy. But while the reserve existence is light years removed from his own, he sees enormous promise.

He's heartened to see some troubled friends back at Barriere turn to sobriety. He's proud of several cousins who went on to get masters degrees in education at UBC. And he sees aboriginal persons waking up to the realization that they're empowered to get in on the wealth of economic opportunities in B.C.

"If you want to be part of the solution, you have to be partners and help manage the situation," says Mounsey. "Otherwise, you're just standing on the side of the road watching the logging trucks drive by. Without a foot in the door, you'll have no control or say in our resources."

Rob Klovance is managing editor of bchydro.com