Photo by Brian Howell
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.