Island knowledge keeper honored with Courage to Come Back award

Barney Williams, 82, gave up drinking at 26 after being involved in fatal accidents and attempting suicide twice; for the past 56 years he has helped others overcome addiction, mental health issues and trauma

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Wandering around 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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As many things do, the boat evoked memories of what was, what should never have been, and what might have been for Williams.

The 82-year-old was honored on May 14 with a Courage to Come Back award for overcoming addiction at the age of 26 after surviving the loss of his mother, suffering abuse from his father, getting through 12 years at residential school in Kamloops, and surviving a fatal boat accident and a fatal house fire that were both alcohol-related.

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

The Western King, a fishing vessel Barney Williams worked on in the 1970s, at dock in Campbell River.
The Western King, a fishing vessel Barney Williams worked on in the 1970s, at dock in Campbell River. Photo by Jim Whyte /Coast Mental Health

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

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

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

After a dozen years of abuse and bullying in Kamloops at residential school, Williams lived a life of benders, some fatal to friends.

The first deadly booze-fueled accident happened when a boat took him and friends to the bar capsized. Two drowned.

Another couple of friends died in a house fire that Williams escaped by jumping out of a second-story window.

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A traumatized Williams went on to attempt suicide, twice.

“The degree of difficulty overcoming any of these obstacles, to me, is unimaginable,” Williams’ sister-in-law Mary Benett said. “And yet overcome them he did, continuing with his education from him while maintaining his kind, gentle, respectful demeanor 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 Whyte /Coast Mental Health

When Williams finally did see the light, it was the sun coming up.

He was sitting by the dock at Opitsaht on Meares Island across from Tofino around 5:30 am after a days-long bender when an elderly fisherman walking by stopped and engaged Williams.

They chatted for maybe an hour with a promise from Williams he’d come to that evening’s 5:30 pm Alcoholic Anonymous meeting with the fisherman, who had been sober for about a year. Off the man went to fish, leaving Williams to dump out his final beer, watch the waves and listen to the sea as the sun rose, simple joys he hadn’t acknowledged in ages.

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Then and there, he pledged to turn his life around.

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

Williams can laugh now.

“I don’t know if it was embarrassment or what, but I said, ‘Yeah, OK, we’re ready.’”

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

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

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He was awarded an honorary doctorate of law by UVic in 2017. He and his wife, Trina, have six children, nine grandchildren and a great-grandson.

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

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

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

“It’s possible.”

gordmcintyre@hotmail.com

twitter.com/gordmcintyre

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