Island knowledge keeper honored with Courage to Come Back award

Barney Williams, 82, stopped drinking when he was 26 after being involved in fatal accidents and attempting suicide twice; for the past 56 years he has helped others overcome addiction, mental health problems and trauma

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While wandering on a wharf in Campbell River recently, Barney Williams and a photographer came across the Western King, a fishing vessel Williams worked on in the 1970s.

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Like so many things, the boat evoked memories of what was, what never should have been and what could have been for Williams.

The 82-year-old was honored with a Courage to Come Back award on May 14 for overcoming an addiction at age 26 after surviving the loss of his mother, being abused by his father, residential school in Kamloops, and surviving a fatal boating accident and a fatal house fire, both related to alcohol.

Thank goodness, Williams said, he was sober when he broke his back in a logging accident at age 28 and had to relearn to walk during two years of recovery.

The Western King, a fishing vessel that Barney Williams worked on in the 1970s, was docked in Campbell River.
The Western King, a fishing vessel that Barney Williams worked on in the 1970s, was docked in Campbell River. Photo by Jim WhyteMental health on the coast

He’s been sober for 56 years now and counting, and Saturday’s award, one of five awarded by Coast Mental Health, was as humble as it was unexpected, Williams said.

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“It gives you a huge boost to know that people care about you. It means a lot to me to be recognized and honored here in such an incredible way.”

Williams, a knowledge keeper, grew up near Tofino and now lives in Campbell River. His son Vincent took over from his father as a beach custodian for the Nuu-chah-nulth Nation in 2015, when the elder Williams resigned after more than 60 years.

After a decade of abuse and bullying in Kamloops residential school, Williams lived a life of buzzards, some of them fatal to friends.

The first drink-related fatality occurred when a boat carrying him and friends to the bar capsized. Two drowned.

A few more friends died in a house fire that Williams escaped by jumping out of a second-floor window.

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A traumatized Williams attempted suicide twice.

“The difficulty of overcoming any of these obstacles is unimaginable to me,” said Mary Benett, Williams’ sister-in-law. “And yet he overcame them, continuing his education while maintaining his kind, gentle, respectful attitude towards others.”

Barney Williams on the wharf at Campbell River, looking at the Western King, a fishing vessel he once worked on.
Barney Williams on the wharf at Campbell River, looking at the Western King, a fishing vessel he once worked on. Photo by Jim WhyteMental health on the coast

When Williams finally saw the light, it was the sun that rose.

He was sitting at the dock at Opitsaht on Meares Island opposite Tofino about 5:30 a.m. after bowing for days when an elderly man passing fisherman stopped and hired Williams.

They chatted for perhaps an hour with Williams promising that he would come to Alcoholics Anonymous’ meeting that evening at 5:30 pm with the fisherman, who had been sober for about a year. The man went fishing, leaving Williams to dump his last beer, watch the waves and listen to the sea as the sun rose, simple pleasures he hadn’t recognized in ages.

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Then and there he promised to turn his life around.

“Anyway, 5pm came around. I said to my wife, ‘Get ready, we’re going to the bar,'” Williams said. ‘We walk along the quay and there was an old man. He says, “Klitch-wii-taa, you’re early!” Calling Williams by his Nuu-chah-nulth name.

Williams can laugh now.

“I don’t know if it was embarrassing or something, but I said, ‘Yeah, okay, we’re ready.'”

It was a spiritual awakening, an acceptance of a higher power and a new vision to help others.

Williams went back to the classroom, taking dozens of courses over the years in social work, clinical counseling, drug and alcohol counseling, and related fields, served as a committee member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and continues to speak at events and advise governments.

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In 2017, he received an honorary doctorate in law from UVic. He and his wife Trina have six children, nine grandchildren and one great-grandson.

“He has lived a life of service, showing that you can overcome adversity and forgive over time,” said Yvonne Rigsby-Jones of Snuneymuxw First Nation.

Saturday’s hour-long ceremony, broadcast live on Global, also spotlighted Coastal Mental Health’s peer support program, which teaches participants to use their personal experiences of living with mental illness and the challenges of recovery to to help others.

“For people who still suffer from addiction, I always remember them every day as I do my little ceremonies and ask the Creator to watch over them wherever they are, not just First Nations people,” Williams said. “I pray that they are safe and that they find that place of peace and sobriety.

“It is possible.”

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