By the time Barney Williams was 26, he was an alcoholic. He’d lost his mother when he was 2. His father was abusive. He’d spent 12 years in a residential school, and had tried to end his own life twice.
But at 82, he has won the 2022 Courage to Come Back Award given by the Coast Mental Health Foundation.
Knowledge keeper Barney Williams has lived a long and storied life. He grew up near Tofino and now lives in Campbell River. He held the responsibility as keeper of the beach for the Nuu-chah-nulth Nation for 60 years, a role that is now held by his son Vincent.
He’s also spent his adult life as a therapist who combines academic training with Tla-o-qui-aht teachings to help people heal. And he’s been sober for more than 50 years.
He was surprised when he found out he’d won the Courage to Come Back Award.
“I was very emotional when I realized what it was for, and how big a deal it was,” Williams told Campbell River Mirror. “It really moved my spirit to be recognized.”
Getting sober wasn’t easy. And it happened because of a little luck.
He was sitting by the dock at Opitsaht on Meares Island across from Tofino around 5:30 a.m. He’d been on a days-long bender. An elderly fisherman happened to be walking by, and he struck up a conversation.
They chatted for maybe an hour. At the end, Williams promised he’d come to that evening’s Alcoholic Anonymous meeting with the fisherman.
The man went off to fish, and Williams poured out his final beer.
“Anyway, 5 p.m. came around, I said to my wife, ‘Get ready, we’re going to the bar,'” Williams told the Vancouver Sun.
Maybe he wasn’t quite ready to tackle his issues just yet. But the fisherman had other plans.
“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.
Williams thinks it’s a funny story now.
“I don’t know if it was embarrassment or what, but I said, ‘Yeah, OK, we’re ready.'”
He calls his early days with AA a “spiritual awakening.”
Williams went back to school for social work. He got training to help folks with drug and alcohol problems.
He thanks his grandmother for giving him the strength to get sober and help people. He started to use her teachings to help himself and his clients.
” I began to explore identity as one of the keys to sobriety,” Williams told the Campbell River Mirror. “Being able to know who you are and where you come from.”
“So I started doing that with ceremonies. We’d go to the river, or do brushings with cedar. I realized all the teachings my granny had given me have a use as part of the therapeutic work.”
He played a huge role in creating the counselling program for Indigenous Peoples at Vancouver Island University. And he served as an expert on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
“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”