By Cher Bloom
In the contemporary British Columbia Aboriginal Movement, there has hardly been a change implemented in the last thirty years, which has not been touched by the strong, firm, determined but gentle hand of Margaret Vickers.
A professional psychotherapist, teacher, healer, singer, designer, artist, athlete, and advocate for the rights of Aboriginal people in many parts of the world, this sensitive woman’s clear vision and influence have made her an unsung icon of her generation.
She was born Margaret Ruth Vickers on July 3, 1949, eldest daughter and third born of seven children, into the Eagle tribe of Lach Lan, (the village of Kitkatla) on Dolphin Island.
At this time, natives were considered “non-citizens” of Canada.
“At my birth, they used forceps to pull me out. Thus started my struggle with professional medical people for the rest of my life.”
Margaret’s father is Arthur Amos Vickers, a descendent of a hereditary Chief of the Tsimchian, Tlingit and Heiltsuk Nations, and a survivor of residential school abuse.
Margaret’s mother, Grace Isabel Freeman, was British / Canadian. It appears that her roots were also Jewish.
“My mother was a teacher, nurse and missionary. Because the government wouldn’t allow missionaries into China during the Second World War, she and my father settled on Dolphin Island. My mother was a victim of medical mismanagement in Prince Rupert, during the birth of my sister Faith. Believing that Grace was an Indian, the hospital staff left her in the hallway instead of the operating room. It was a breech birth, the baby died. My mother almost died too. The ironic thing was that Faith was born and died on Remembrance Day.”
“I’ve always listened to the elders. In my childhood, their words were more important than textbooks. At ten, I went to the elders on both my mother’s and father’s sides. It was the first time I’d met my mother’s Vancouver family. I wondered why they were so white, and why they hadn’t been part of my childhood. I discovered that neither of my parent’s families had agreed with the marriage. My mother lost her Canadian citizenship and became a status Indian. Grace was the first white woman to be elected chief counselor of the community.”
Margaret’s family moved to Gitxsan territory in Hazelton. Hazelton Amalgamated Elementary School was attended by Indian and white children; Margaret was “a double outsider”.
She wasn’t Gitxsan or white. At twelve, she became the first female to win first prize in every track and field event held at the school.
In 1962, the family relocated to Victoria. As the only Aboriginal female in Oak Bay Junior High School, Margaret experienced racial prejudice on several fronts. She became very competitive, and excelled in physical education and drama.
Despite the oppression she experienced, the family matrilineal teachings (based on love, spirituality, community and understanding), remained stronger than the patriarchal based teachings of the dominant white society.
“I wanted to become a teacher. At that time, I was assessed, counseled and directed toward the General program, which didn’t lead to University. I shut down. I’d had my balloon popped. I fared poorly on the psychiatric evaluation. There were questions about yards and families, systems, beliefs, values and customs-culturally oriented topics. I spoke from childhood experiences.
We didn’t have a rake in our yard (we used clamshells), we didn’t have fences – (people respected each other’s territories). Since many questions seemed non-applicable and irrelevant, I didn’t respond.
The authorities interpreted that to mean that I couldn’t comprehend the level of questioning. They figured that I should be happy to accept any job available. I stood my ground. I refused to attend school. I was called in and sent to the principal. I expected to be trapped, (as was the custom in Hazelton).
Instead, the principal, Rudyard Kipling, asked me about my background. I replied that I was from a village with half the population of this school, – that I was experiencing culture shock. He took great interest in my perceptions. He saw that I was well-read and cognizant of these complexities, but also very upset by racial prejudice.
The social culture of the school taught me that I couldn’t trust anyone, (I’d never had to lock anything before.) I felt compelled to continually prove myself. I was given a probation of three months in the academic program. I excelled.
I was also very intuitive, but that was not recognized at that time. I came from a bloodline that was “set apart” for healing, for spirituality and for positivity.
In Mount Douglas Senior Secondary, I became President of the Student Council. I went for all available positions including political ones. Prejudice continued, but I worked hard, and made friends easily.”
At fifteen, Margaret started working at Woolworth’s. She purchased her own clothes and helped support her family.
She later became a student and President of the Student Union at the Institute of Adult Studies, where she fought to make the Institute into an official college. Two years later it became Camosun College.
In 1967, Margaret became the first and only First Nations “Miss Victoria”. At nineteen, she was at UVic, where she completed her teacher’s certification.
“In the seventies, Fred Quilt was kicked to death in the interior by R.C.M.P. I couldn’t understand this. This was when the American Indian Militancy was rising to power. That’s when the dominant society realized that we weren’t going to be as quietly submissive as our parents and grandparents had been. We began to peacefully resist colonial oppression by the federal and provincial governments.”
In 1971 Margaret was hired as the village administrator in Kitkatla, where she learned to do intergovernmental relations. In 1972, she became a counselor in the Native Indian Program at Camosun, and then became the college’s faculty representative.
Shortly thereafter, she became the first and youngest female First Nations Representative on the Senate at UVic. She helped to initiate the only B.C. Native Indian Teachers Association, and the first Professional Native Women’s Association. She became Vice President there for three years.
She coordinated the Indian Education Resource Centre at UVic, and was then hired as a consultant, by Harold Cardinal, author of “The Unjust Society” and “Rebirth of Canada’s Indians”. When Harold was hired as the regional director for the Department of Indian Affairs, in Edmonton, Margaret joined him as his contracted Executive Assistant.
“After Harold Cardinal was fired by the Federal Government, (because he was not willing to be controlled), everyone on contract was let go. That heralded the beginning of my participation in numerous political protests.”
In Edmonton, in 1978, Margaret opened the Eagle Down Gallery, the first Native Indian owned and operated art gallery in Alberta.
“Natives use eagle down for ritual cleansing and healing, the same way the Roman Catholics use incense. When eagle down is spread around in ceremony, it means: peace be with you.
Participants leave unresolved issues outside the longhouse, they listen and observe. Later, if someone has trouble, they remember the ceremony and know what to do.”
Margaret sponsored fifty Canadian native artists including her eldest brother Roy, who held his first exhibition at her gallery.
“Since people weren’t used to Traditional West Coast Art, the gallery became a learning experience for everyone. Many of the gallery’s best patrons were Jewish. They contributed hugely to the gallery’s success. During that time Margaret created and co-hosted 20-minute educational, promotional television programs featuring the artists, and later co-founded the Edmonton Art Gallery Group for promotion.
“Years ago, Aboriginal artists sculpted stone. The book “Stone Images of B.C.”, by the late Wilson Duff, gave 30,000 years of history to B.C. First Nations. The mask on the cover is from Kitkatla. Wilson Duff had been the Curator of Ethnology at the B.C. Museum. He was the visionary white man who set up the Museum of Anthropology at U.B.C. He requested my help with my people’s spiritual history. He later committed suicide. He wished to reincarnate as a First Nations person from Haida Gwai or the Tsimshian Nation.”
In 1977, Buffy Ste. Marie headlined a huge conference in Edmonton. Margaret attended her concert, and was allowed backstage.
“I was dressed in contemporary aboriginal clothing, which I had made. I entered with the authority of my lineage. Buffy was interested in meeting me because of my support of Aboriginal art. She told me to “Help them (the artists), because artists are like prophets, they tell you what is coming. They tell you what the world is like through their own souls and creativity. They tell the dark as well as the light.”
Buffy became one of my first teachers in Alberta. That night onstage, she said, “For all you radicals out there, first get the facts straight before you shoot off your mouth!” It was the best advice she could have given. Research the subject as quickly and efficiently as possible, and then negotiate. It was the desire for reconciliation and restitution that led me into intergovernmental relations.”
In 1980, after selling the gallery, Margaret accepted a contract with the B.C. Museum as an artist and consultant. She developed a kit for blind patrons, using the concept of a bent cedar box containing a mask.
“I used different textures for the various colours-gravel in the black, which represented the exterior covering of an animal, a bear, wolf or bird, (so they could feel the form lines). I used a slippery red paint, which represented the interior, the animal’s anatomical structure-the inside form lines. People were able to see with their hands, what the mask looked and felt like, what it represented.
Death and dying
In 1982, Margaret set up a volunteer program at Hospice Victoria, incorporating her own experiences with death and dying. For two years, she and others helped hundreds of families go through that turmoil. The approach was spiritual but non-religious.
“I am Christian but I integrate traditional ritual, beliefs and customs into my offerings. I don’t call myself a Medicine Woman, -other people do.”
Among the guidelines instituted for volunteers and staff at the hospice, was a rule that if someone was grieving, they could not continue to work there. The Hospice refused to accept her resignation.
“I told them that this was worse than a tenfold death.”
Margaret learned that the U.S. Immigration Law regarded her as “a Canadian born American Indian,” which gave her the right to live in either country. She sold everything she owned, and moved to Hawaii, where she resided from 1984 until 1986.
She became the Legislative Assistant and Constituency Affairs Manager for Representative Cam Cavasso in the State Capitol, where she helped provide a liaison between the State of Hawaii, and Aboriginal Hawaiians. She also accepted a contract with Small Business Hawaii.
In 1986, she returned to B.C. because her father had a stroke and nearly died. Vickers & Father
“I relocated to B.C. within 24 hours. An anonymous donor provided my ticket home.”
In 1987, Margaret returned to Hazelton to become the administrator in Kispiox, (also known as Anspayxw), “the hiding place”, a town known for the most destructive and violent behaviour patterns in B.C.
First native woman on council
In 1989, Margaret became the first and only Aboriginal Woman to be on the Premier’s Council for Aboriginal Affairs in B.C., under Bill Van der Zalm.
“I had to remind him that he came from a culture who wore wooden shoes and reclaimed land from the sea.”
She helped the Province of B.C. come to the Treaty negotiating table. Prior to that it had been between the Federal government and Aboriginal people.
Margaret had been on death’s door three times. In 1972, she fell into a coma in Kitkatla. Her funeral had already been prepared. In 1975, Margaret again became comatose, this time in Victoria. In this state, she met her dead ancestors. It happened a third time in 1990.
“That was a turning point for me. I had come out of a sauna in Skidigate, Haida Gwai, and again fallen into a coma. I met my Mom’s mom, who sang to me, and my Dad’s dad, who had been killed by a drunk white driver in Prince Rupert. They were both peaceful and happy. As I returned to life this time, I had flashbacks of traumatic abuse I had sufferred as a child. I had been beaten and raped. It had started when I was four. It had come from victim offenders. I developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I couldn’t cope.”
Margaret gave up inter-governmental relations, and signed into a treatment center called The Meadows in Wickenberg, Arizona. The centre was the only one she could find, that treated patients with negative codependency tendencies (they put other people’s ideas and needs above their own), as she had done most of her life. She had been a workaholic overachiever.
She helped the other patients with her empathy and understanding. She was encouraged to become a therapist.
Margaret completed a one-year training program in three months. She studied more academic psychology at the University of Ottawa, in Phoenix. She remained in Phoenix and became an independent advocate for Native Americans in psychiatric institutes.
“Of forty psychiatrists working at Desert Vista Hospital, I could only work with three. They were open to the spiritual realm, and multicultural customs. They allowed me to bring in local Medecine People to translate diagnoses and therapeutic approaches into the patients’ own tongues. I was flown all over the States to help Native patients. I didn’t use medical jargon.
I sang and used my drum. Patients knew me as a survivor. I helped them to find their new walk in life. I helped them kick their addiction to prescription drugs and hold their doctors accountable. Canada is somewhat backward in this regard.
In 1994, I returned to B.C. My mother had been diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer. It was too late to stop the destruction of her body. They gave her two to three months to live — she lasted a year and a half. She died at home on May 12, 1995, on her birthday, with all of us around her. It was an extremely powerful experience.
We sang “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and “Amazing Grace”. She kept asking every last one of us, every grandchild, until we all agreed we were ready to let her go-we were all there for two weeks. She died a painful but peaceful death. She was my best friend. Her teachings are always with me, I can feel her presence. It took me a long time to get over her death.
My whole family is now in recovery from self destructive behavioural patterns.”
When Margaret returned to work in 1996, she trained frontline workers to do proactive intervention, before a crisis or violent act happens.
In 1999 she moved to Jerusalem, and worked helping Jews to make “Aliyah”, which means “becoming a citizen of Israel”, and claiming and owning their Jewish roots (as she was investigating hers).
“I will consider myself Jewish when I finish tracing my lineages. I am unearthing bits of history from my mother’s sister.”
Margaret returned to Canada where she continued her sabbatical, to design clothing, create ceremonial regalia, and write prose.
In 2001, she became the Medical Office Manager and the Facilitator for Small Group Psychotherapy for Dr. Phillip Ney, M.D. This is her current occupation.
“I think it is the oppression of my generation, which has motivated me to rise above the cultural “stuff”, to another domain. I no longer have much time for politics. (I meet with MLA Murray Coell from time to time on a voluntary basis.)
My life flows like a river. I create time for people of all cultures who desire to direct their behaviours and attitudes into channels of healing.
Margaret Vickers owns a small home in the Tsawout Nation in East Saanich. As a result of the Elder’s conference held in Saanichton in July, 2002, she has been invited to facilitate healing seminars, in communities throughout B.C.
“Margaret means “Pearl- it begins with a small agitation and results in a treasure.”