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Photo by Brian Howell
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Photo by Margaret Reynolds.
Randy and Edith at the Gray Campbell Award dinner, Stanley Park, 2005.
Randy Fred thought that life after residential school would be drinking, watching TV and dying. Instead, he became the "greatest blind Indian publisher in the world." This article is one of a series of Geist profiles commissioned with the assistance of Arts Partners for Creative Development.
Randy Fred, who jokingly introduced himself to me a few years ago as the “greatest blind Indian publisher in the world,” and his wife, Edith Fred, sailed from Nanaimo across the Salish Sea, also referred to as the Strait of Georgia, to Vancouver in the spring of 2005 to attend a dinner and ceremony where Randy was to be presented with the Gray Campbell Distinguished Service Award for his contribution to publishing in BC. After five hours of travel from their home by ferry and bus, they checked into the Sylvia Hotel, a Vancouver landmark famous for its resident cat, Mister Got to Go, and its terra cotta exterior walls covered with Virginia creeper. In the evening they changed into their dress clothes and walked over to Stanley Park, a thousand-acre park adorned with statues of Robert Burns and Lord Stanley and memorials to William Shakespeare, Queen Victoria and the Mohawk poet Pauline Johnson. The Gray Campbell Award dinner was held in the park, at an upscale restaurant that served as a clubhouse for golf and tennis players when it had opened in 1930, when all but one of the Aboriginal families living there had been evicted and the park was declared a wilderness.
Some ninety guests had paid seventy-five dollars each to attend the ceremony. Randy told me, when I first visited him two years ago, that he was surprised that so many people had spent that much money for a dinner in his honour. On the menu were tomato soup, prawns, BC salmon and fancy wines. Stephen Osborne, a friend and publishing colleague of Randy’s, introduced him as the publisher who had conceived the idea of the Encyclopedia of the New World, which would be the story of the people whose world had been remade by strangers from Europe, quick to name their own world old as soon as they encountered another one.
That evening Randy wore a steel-blue suit, white shirt and a silver eagle medallion on a silver chain. When Edith led him by the arm to the microphone he seemed almost frail, one of the guests recalled, an impression that disappeared as soon as he started to speak to the audience. He spoke of growing up on a tiny island off the west coast of Vancouver Island and of being sent to residential school as a child and of the abuse he had suffered there and of his subsequent addiction to drugs and alcohol. He spoke of gradually losing his vision over the course of his life as a result of retinitis pigmentosa. He gave an account of founding Theytus Books, the first Aboriginal publishing house in Canada. He told of the class action lawsuit against the United Church and the Government of Canada that he and other residential school survivors had been involved in and the court trial at which Edith finally got to hear about his life at the residential school and the dark days that followed. He spoke for nearly an hour and at the end of his speech he said, “Now, do you know what they call a publisher who’s been baptized?” After a long pause, he smiled and said, “A Jehovah’s Witness.” Then he told the audience of book publishers that he and Edith had been baptized after the residential school trial, and that after their many difficult years together, it was his way of renewing his commitment to his wife and the life they shared.
One of the guests recalled that “a silence swept the room” when Randy said that he was a Jehovah’s Witness; another could recall no reaction at all; yet another didn’t remember him saying anything about religion. “The usual reaction when I tell people I’m a Jehovah’s Witness,” Randy told me in the fall of 2009, “is that people become terrified. A few years ago a Nanaimo reporter who was interviewing me at my house excused herself abruptly and left my house as soon as I told her I was a Jehovah’s Witness.”
Randy Fred is sixty-one years old. His hair is grey at the temples; the top of his head is bald. His smile reveals a missing tooth. When he appears in public, he often wears a suit and tie and, around his neck, the silver eagle medallion or a turquoise stone necklace.
He is an Elder of the Tseshaht tribe, one of the fourteen nations that comprise the tribal council of the Nuu-chah-nulth, a people who had been living on the west coast of Vancouver Island for millennia when Captain James Cook stumbled upon them in 1778. Cook misnamed them “Nootka,” a term he had heard from the Nuu-chah-nulth on shore, telling him to sail around the bend.
Randy was born in a “shoebox shack” in Port Alberni on October 24, 1950. He was named after Randolph Scott, the actor known for playing cowboy heroes in Hollywood Westerns in the 1940s and ’50s. He grew up on an island in Barkley Sound, a huge body of water tucked between Ucluelet and Bamfield, protected from the Pacific Ocean by hundreds of tiny islands known as the Broken Island Chain. His father trolled the open sea off the west coast of Vancouver Island in his fishing boat, the Gabriola Belle. His mother stayed with Randy and his siblings. She gathered berries and goose-neck barnacles and sea urchins for food. The Freds had seven children at the time and they migrated among the tiny islands, living in one-room cabins and, on occasion, on the Gabriola Belle. When his father was away on fishing trips, his mother kept the radio on all night.
From time to time the family would take evening trips by canoe—a big west coast canoe outfitted with oars—to visit relatives and friends in Ucluelet and nearby islands. The trips were short and the water calm as they cut along coves and through narrow channels between the islands. In those days, it became evident that Randy couldn’t see in the dark. His father allowed him to row the canoe because out there on the water, in the dark, wide night, he felt at ease as long as he had oars to hang on to. He canoed alone for the first time when he was four years old and he became so strong at rowing that when he became a teenager, his uncle would recruit him on nighttime fishing expeditions. Randy would row and the uncle would guide him and gradually fill the canoe with salmon, and all night they would listen for the sound of the engines of Canadian Fisheries boats that patrolled the waters for illegal fishing.
Randy’s mother had been sent to residential school when she was six years old; his father when he was fifteen. His father had sewing needles thrust into his tongue when he was caught speaking his language. He taught his own children English and forbade them to speak Tseshaht around him.
In 1955, Randy was enrolled in Alberni Indian Residential School (which was later shown to have been one of the most horrific residential schools in the country), where his father had gone in the 1920s and where his older brothers and sisters were also enrolled. At age five he was thrown into an institution that housed boys as old as sixteen, organized by strict hierarchies based on how tough you were, or how tough your friends and brothers and cousins were. He was sexually abused for the first time by a fellow student when he was six years old. He was sexually abused for the first time by a staff member when he was eight. He fell prey to Arthur Henry Plint, a dormitory supervisor, who raped dozens of children over the years, and who, when he was sentenced for his crimes years later, was referred to by the presiding judge as a “sexual terrorist.” Over the years, Randy learned to use sex to get protection, food and money. When he was twelve, he started drinking, getting high and chain smoking. At times his brothers and cousins were his enemies; at other times they were allies. He rarely saw his sisters.
The students at the residential school were sent to church every morning, twice on Sundays. The boys wore grey shirts, denim overalls and heavy black army-style boots. They were served macaroni and cheese, scalloped potatoes and bologna sandwiches. At night, the other boys would sneak into the pantry stocked with fruit and sweets for the school staff; Randy always stayed behind, unable to navigate in the dark.
He boarded at the school for ten months out of the year, except for Christmas and Easter, and spent the summers at the family home. When he was ten years old, his father moved the family to a house on reserve land in Port Alberni, a few hundred yards from the school. At the beginning of summer, when school let out, Randy would take his things and walk home, along the chain-link fence that separated the school grounds from reserve land. In those summer months he would sometimes join his father on the fishing boat. The trips, he remembers, were unpleasant: the rough seas, the smell of bilge and exhaust, his father, who expected him to know how to handle himself on the water. Then, in the fall, Randy would walk back to the school, along the chain-link fence. For ten long months he rarely saw his parents, but he could see the family home by looking out the window of the school bus, on the occasional field trip.
Randy made his first contact with white kids in grade 7, when he and his classmates from the residential school were bussed to the public school in Port Alberni. The white kids and the Aboriginal kids attended the same classes, including social studies, in which the students learned about the customs of Huron and Iroquois people, and nothing of the nations of the west coast.
In grade 10 he stopped boarding at the school and moved home, where twenty-one people now lived: his parents, his siblings (twelve of them now) and a few cousins. His grades, which had been excellent (he had been class valedictorian one year), dropped because he had no place to study at home, and he took to sitting by the river with his books.
The following year, in 1967, Randy was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic eye condition for which there is no cure. He was classified as legally blind and he learned that he would eventually lose his vision completely. He says now that he could tell his life in Port Alberni would be filled with drinking, drugging, watching TV and dying. He had to finish high school because he couldn’t rely on manual labour jobs once he was blind. He persuaded the Indian Agent in Port Alberni to sign him up for the boarding-out program and landed a spot in Nanaimo, in the home of a United Church reverend. He enrolled himself in high school and in 1968 graduated with high marks.
After high school, Randy worked in logging camps, as a timekeeper and in payroll accounting. He was drinking and using hard drugs by then, keeping his life in balance between work and dissipation. He moved all over British Columbia: Mackenzie, Golden, Valemount, Zeballos. In Port Alberni he got a job doing accounting for the West Coast District Council of Chiefs, but he had to give it up within two years because his eyesight was failing. He landed a job at a radio station in Port Alberni, in the news department, where he reported on school board meetings and produced a series of street interviews on fishing, governance and the activities of MacMillan Bloedel, a large forest products company. The interviews aired in half-hour segments, with musical interludes featuring Frank Zappa and Buffy Sainte-Marie. When MacMillan Bloedel threatened to sue the station, Randy was fired. The Alberni Valley Times offered him a weekly column, which he called “From the Inside Out.” He says that the radio job and the column set him on the course for publishing: that is where he learned the power of media and became interested in using technology to address cultural and socio-economic issues. These events in Port Alberni, a town of about twenty thousand inhabitants at the time, launched him into the public world.
In 1975, Randy met Edith Shish, a young woman from Powell River, after Edith’s sisters had arranged for her to meet a guy they’d met in a bar, whom they referred to as Dandy Randy. Edith and Randy hit it off right away, but she soon returned to school and they rarely saw each other over the next year. Randy called Edith on the last day of school; they met up in Vancouver and then spent the summer in a tent at Qualicum Beach. Eventually they moved to a rented suite in Nanaimo, and they lived together for three years before they married. Their son, Ralph, was born five years later, in 1983; their daughter, Teoni, was born in 1985.
Over the next few years, Randy immersed himself in the world of Aboriginal communications. In 1978 he founded the Quanatsustal Media Society, whose mandate was to give Aboriginal people a means to gain communication and media skills. He went to Edmonton to observe the Alberta Native Communications Society. He organized courses in photojournalism and newsletter production at Malaspina College (now Vancouver Island University) in Nanaimo, where finally he conceived the idea of an Aboriginal book publishing house. He named the company Theytus, a Salish term meaning “preserving for the sake of handing down.”
Theytus negotiated two-year funding from Canada Manpower (now part of Service Canada) and Randy rented office space above the Book Store on Bastion Street in Nanaimo. He filled it with drafting tables and second-hand furniture and hired staff from the prairies and the west coast. He hired one non-Aboriginal, Steve Guppy, an editor at Island magazine. Guppy was a former student of Ron Smith, a creative writing teacher at Malaspina, who helped Theytus get funding (and who was presented with the Gray Campbell Award in 2011).
In its first year, Theytus published Gone Indian, a postmodern literary cowboy tale set in Alberta (originally published in 1973), by Robert Kroetsch, a non-Aboriginal writer, who had won the Governor General’s Award in the 1960s. It was followed by a collection of legends, Kwulasulwut: Stories from the Coast Salish, by Ellen White, an elder of the Nanaimo Nation. Theytus’s first biography was Queesto: Pacheenaht Chief by Birthright, the story of Chief Charlie Jones of the Pacheenaht Reservation, who was one hundred years old when the prominent Hollywood animator Stephen Bosustow interviewed him for the book. Teachings of the Tides: Uses of Marine Invertebrates by the Manhousat People, which also appeared that year, deals with ethno-biology, food sovereignty and land use among Aboriginal groups on the west coast of Vancouver Island. It was written by David Ellis, a commercial fisherman, and Luke Swan, an elder from Ahousat. The study of ethnobiology and food sovereignty became an important focus for Randy throughout his career.
That year, Randy took on a children’s book project. He also connected with Pulp Press in Vancouver, looking for assistance in printing preparation and other book production techniques. There he met Stephen Osborne, publisher of Pulp. Osborne recalls getting a phone call from a “Native guy” who said he was a publisher and wanted to see him. On the afternoon they had arranged to meet, Osborne happened to look out the window and saw a Native guy walk by the Pulp office, heading uphill, then a few minutes later the same guy walked past in the opposite direction. When the guy walked past a third time, Osborne went out into the street and asked him if he was Randy Fred. He was. Randy had tunnel vision at the time and he couldn’t see the oddly placed address of the office; yet he just kept looking, without asking for directions. The two became close friends and collaborators.
In late 1981, when Randy learned that Theytus’s funding was to be cut, he met the financial officer for the Cold Water Indian Band in Merritt, a non-Aboriginal man named Greg Enright, who happened to be one of the founders of Pulp Press. With Enright’s assistance, Randy moved Theytus to Penticton, in the interior of BC. There it was taken over by the Nicola Valley Indian Administration and the Okanagan Tribal Council, and incorporated into the En’owkin Centre, an Aboriginal learning centre with a strong literary program. Randy was hired to train staff for Theytus, and he and Edith moved to Penticton, where the culture of the Okanagan is embedded in the desert and mountain landscape, and where they felt a strong cultural divide between the Okanagan people and the west coast nations.
Randy conceived the idea of the Encyclopedia of the New World while he and three associates—Stephen Osborne; Jeannette Armstrong, a writer; and Jeff Smith, an editor at Theytus—were driving down the secondary highways of the Okanagan Valley to Merritt to meet the Cold Water Band. They had been discussing Mel Hurtig’s new Canadian Encyclopedia, which had just been published and in which Nuu-chah-nulth history plays an insignificant role. Since then, Randy says, everything he’s written and published has been a contribution to the ongoing encyclopedia. The term new world is used to describe the land discovered by Europeans when they arrived in North America, but it also refers to the remaking of North America when the Europeans landed here and created a strange and new world for the first people of this continent, a world that Aboriginals are still in conflict with.
Randy has been gathering material and thinking about the Encyclopedia of the New World for thirty years. In the first edition of his newspaper, Strait Arrow, published in 1993, he wrote that all of the research done for the newspaper would find its way into the encyclopedia; in fact, he has directed all of his subsequent publishing ventures in the same way: assembling materials for the vast conceptual encyclopedia.
In the mid-1980s, the Fred family moved to Vancouver. There Randy reconnected with Stephen Osborne and found a desk at Pulp Press, which was then populated by gregarious intellectuals and heavy drinkers who were publishing anarchist and anti-capitalist material, literary texts and poetry, and who had been attacked in Parliament as terrorists “operating in the style of the Italian Red Brigades.”
Randy set up Tillicum Library, an imprint of Pulp Press, and published Resistance and Renewal: Surviving the Indian Residential School by Celia Haig-Brown, which won the Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Prize in 1989 and is, as of 2010, in its eighth printing. Resistance and Renewal contains the accounts of thirteen survivors of Kamloops Indian Residential School. When Pulp Press sought funding to subsidize production of the book, one agency declined because the manuscript was “a one-sided account.” In the foreword to Resistance and Renewal, Randy wrote about his own experience at residential school. It was the first time his colleagues at Pulp had heard about those harrowing parts of his early life.
Throughout the late 1980s, Randy published several commercially successful books for Tillicum, including Stoney Creek Woman by Bridget Moran, which has sold more than forty thousand copies. At this time he was going on drinking binges that lasted for days. After work he would go out for long walks and smoke marijuana, then come home and lie on the couch while Edith looked after the house and the kids. In 1989 the family moved back to Nanaimo. Randy says that the publishers and editors at Pulp Press who helped him with Tillicum were his first colleagues to treat him like a publisher, rather than an Aboriginal publisher, and that Stephen Osborne became a lifelong mentor in his publishing activities.
In the late 1990s, Randy Fred, along with thirty-one survivors of the notorious Alberni Indian Residential School, sued the Government of Canada and the United Church of Canada, which operated the school, for their part in the abuse of students at the school in the 1950s and ’60s. At the trial, the government and the church maintained that the survivors had not been damaged in any demonstrable way by their experience at the school and, as a result, deserved no recompense. It became incumbent on the plaintiffs to prove that they were, in fact, damaged people.
Randy’s lawyers had to prove that as a result of his experience at residential school, he could not earn a living; and they called his friends, colleagues and employers to the stand. One after another, Randy Fred’s friends and associates, people he cared about and had worked with, took the stand to tell the court about the dark side of Randy’s life, that he was a terrible drunk, that he could not focus, that he performed poorly at work. Edith testified that her husband had contributed little to raising their children when they were young and that he had been an absent husband.
The psychologist brought in by the Government of Canada defence team testified that Randy’s problems had nothing to do with the sexual abuse he had endured at the residential school, but were a consequence of his bad character. The presiding judge concluded that Randy’s alcoholism could just as well have been a product of the friends he chose in residential school and after he left the school.
In the end, the court ruled that Randy’s “success” as a publisher was proof that he wasn’t damaged, that he could earn money and that he had done quite well for himself considering his vision problems. Randy had sought $1.2 million in redress; he was awarded $95,000, the third highest amount of all the plaintiffs, of which he got to keep half after the lawyers took their share. Most of the cases were dismissed, and only a few of the survivors received any recompense.
The court case dragged on for several years, during which time Randy was forced to recount again and again the suffering he had endured at the residential school, his subsequent depression and desire to kill himself; he had to hear his wife describe repeatedly how terrible a husband and father he had been; he had to listen to his colleagues and friends try to convince the judge that he was incompetent. It was the first time Edith had heard the full story of what had happened to her husband at the residential school, and for the first time she understood why he had always been so difficult and distant. She came to understand things about her own mother, who had also attended residential school. She found new respect and admiration for her husband, for his ability to survive and even to excel. The trial, she says, was the defining moment in their marriage. She had been studying the Bible for seven years, and now she decided that she wanted to join the Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose values, she says, resemble the traditional beliefs she was brought up with. Edith and Randy Fred were baptized soon after the residential school trial, after twenty years of marriage, and it was a way of entering a new world, of renewing their vows to each other.
Sometime during the trial, Randy lost his vision completely. When I first went to visit him, I was worried about the proper way to meet a blind person. Do I ask to shake his hand? Do I just grab it and shake? Or perhaps, I thought, if I just hold out my hand, he will be able to sense it. When I walked into his house and introduced myself, Randy paused, welcomed me, and held out his hand.
These days, Randy works on a computer with the help of text-recognition software, which orally reads out everything on his screen. He responds to emails almost instantly and types them out in perfectly composed prose, with complete sentences and appropriate paragraph breaks. He works in a corner of the living room at a desk littered with CDs, DVDs and papers. He told me that he once ordered a Braille reading kit from the Canadian National Institute for the Blind; by the time it arrived, a year later, he’d lost all interest in learning Braille, and he never regained it. Nor does he have any interest in acquiring a guide dog. He’s been in touch with a Chinese millionaire in the sea-cucumber-farm business who has invited him to Nanjing University, where, according to the millionaire, his researcher friends have cures for certain varieties of retinitis pigmentosa. Until a few years ago, when Randy fell into a ditch that has been dug in the middle of a road in Nanaimo, he used to walk the town alone. When he sits in the passenger seat, his feel for the landscape of the town allows him to direct the driver almost anywhere in Nanaimo.
In his early fifties, Randy started lawn bowling, as a way of getting to know other visually impaired people in Nanaimo. Then he started attending tournaments, and winning. He squats down at one end of the bowling green and his partner stands about eight feet in front of him. From the other end, the marker calls out the distances between the jack and the end of the green. In this way, Randy has won gold at the Canadian National Blind Lawn Bowling Championships five times in eight years in category B1, which is completely blind. In the other three years he won silver.
A few years ago he and Edith ran a salmon-smoking business; then he started a consulting company called Aboriginal Visions, which arranges training, certification and mentorships to entrepreneurs in the fishing industry. More recently he’s been learning to play the guitar and the organ. On a sunny day he can be found out in the yard, pulling weeds and listening to Frank Zappa. He despises bologna, scalloped potatoes and macaroni and cheese, as he has done since his residential school days. As his mother did when he was a child, he puts on the radio at night; he uses earphones so as not to wake Edith.
Randy Fred’s latest publishing venture is a magazine called FACE, Aboriginal Life and Culture, of which he is publisher. In many ways, the territory staked out by FACE resembles that of Theytus and Tillicum. The first issue featured a long column about food sovereignty, literary fiction by Lee Maracle, an interview with Buffy Sainte-Marie and a review of Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry, a book by two white academics about the business implications of land claims, residential school trials and other Aboriginal issues.
Randy and Edith Fred’s house was built in 1912. For years it served as a farmhouse for the neighbourhood, which had once been farmland. Old fruit trees are still scattered on the surrounding properties. The Freds live there with their two children, and have raised many foster children there. Years ago they volunteered to care for children from the community for a few days at a time in emergency situations. Many of those children stayed longer, some of them for years. The Freds’ home is often filled with family members—siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews—either staying with them or passing through town.
On my first visit with Randy and Edith, we spoke for a few hours in their living room. Edith, whose background is Polish, German and Manhousaht (her mother was the hereditary chief of the Manhousaht First Nation), is tall and thin and animated. She is nine years younger than her husband. She sat in a stuffed armchair and talked about her family and about the distance between her and her husband during the first twenty-five years of their marriage. Randy sat at the end of the couch, stroking the cat, and said that after he was released from residential school he couldn’t have fun and he felt like something heavy was pressing down on his chest, and that recounting his experience over and over in court had led him out of all that. He said that hearing his wife speak on the witness stand was a revelation and that he admires her for sticking with him. Now there is no more distance between them, he says, and they have a normal marriage, with its ups and downs. We are the people we want to be, said Edith Fred, and we’re always trying to improve ourselves and our lives, and love is the most important part of our life, for each other and our family. And our cats, said Randy Fred.
Out on the deck, Randy told me that his wife is the only reason he’d lived to the age of sixty. He said he wished he could be more zealous in his religion; that the line in the Bible, “fear of men,” applies to how he sometimes feels about admitting that he is a Jehovah’s Witness. He had to read the Bible in residential school, but it wasn’t until after the trial that it began to have an impact on him. Where we are in the stream of time right now, he said, is the fires, floods, earthquakes; these are all predicted in several places in the Bible, there will be famines and pestilence. Then he described Armageddon, and said that he looks forward to that day because when everyone who has died is resurrected, he will get to see his parents and his ancestors and he will learn the history of his people.
In a photograph taken at the Gray Campbell Award dinner Randy and Edith Fred stand side by side. Randy holds his white cane, which reflects the flash of the camera. The white cane, he once wrote, blinds people to my Indian-ness. For him, learning to move through the world as a blind person has been a relatively painless process—people are kind, supports are in place—far more so than learning to move through his native country as a member of the First Nations.