Essays

New World Publisher

Michał Kozłowski

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 25 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 193, 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 29, “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 First Nation, 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, 195. He was named after Randolph Scott, the actor known for playing cowboy heroes in Hollywood Westerns in the 194s and ’5s. 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 192s 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 1 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 211).

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 196s. 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 pro

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Michał Kozłowski

Michał Kozłowski worked at Geist for 15 years. He was born in Krakow, Poland, and has lived in Ottawa, Winnipeg and now Vancouver.


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