Phyllis and the late Andy Chelsea are known to many for their efforts to raise themselves and their Esk’et (Alkali Lake) First Nation community out of alcoholism.
And those who don’t know their name can learn a lot more about their inspiring story Oct. 24 when author Carolyn Parks Mintz shares a presentation about her book Resolve: The Story of the Chelsea Family and a First Nation Community’s Will to Heal in Quesnel.
By combining personal interviews and historical records, Parks Mintz shares the Chelseas’ transition from residential schools and state-sanctioned reservations, struggles with alcoholism and systemic racism, to international recognition of their activism in the face of ongoing repression.
Andy and Phyllis Chelsea met during their years spent at the St. Joseph’s Mission School in Williams Lake, according to a press release about the book, which notes the couple married in 1964 but brought the trauma of their school years into their marriage, struggling with alcohol abuse.
Everything changed in 1971. Their seven-year-old daughter Ivy stated that she and her brothers did not want to live with their parents because of the drinking. Phyllis quit drinking on the spot, and Andy quit a week later, according to Parks Mintz.
Andy Chelsea was Chief of the Esk’et First Nation for 27 years, during which time he and Phyllis worked to eradicate alcoholism and took steps to overcome the rampant inter-generational trauma that existed for the people of Alkali Lake. Their efforts, their story and the perseverance of the members of their village have inspired Indigenous groups facing similar struggles throughout the world.
Parks Mintz moved from Ontario to Chase, B.C., in 2016. She recalls a contact of a friend of hers back in Ontario was writing a play based on a village like Chase, and she got connected to him because he wanted a few lines in the play delivered in the Secwepemc (Shuswap) language. Parks Mintz asked around town and discovered that Ivy Chelsea, the daughter of Andy and Phyllis, taught the language in both schools in Chase.
Parks Mintz got in touch with Ivy, who helped with the translations for the play, and during one of their conversations, Ivy discovered Parks Mintz was a writer.
“She said she’d been looking for someone to write her parents’ story, and I replied I’ve always been interested in First Nations culture with no way to pursue it,” said Parks Mintz. “Within a week or two, I met with Andy and Phyllis Chelsea for about three hours, just an amazing couple. I was just mind-boggled at what they accomplished and how they did it. I went away with the assignment from them to come up with the structure of the book, and when I sat down at the computer, it was all there. I kind of knew what it would have to contain.”
Parks Mintz met with Phyllis and Andy a couple of weeks later and had the introduction and the table of contents done.
“[I] was very humbled and surprised when Andy said ‘you’re the one — you will tell the truth, and you will tell our truth,’” said Parks Mintz.
That was late 2016, and they were embarking on the project in January 2017 when Andy was diagnosed with untreatable cancer.
“I got all his interviews done by phone — an hour, an hour and a half at a time — and I was able to get all his sections written, and he was able to approve them, and we lost him in June of 2017,” said Parks Mintz. “So it’s very special to have him still with us in this book and his philosophies and the amazing things he and Phyllis did.”
Parks Mintz sent the introduction and table of contents to several publishers, and many wrote back asking for more. She says Caitlin Press, which ultimately published the book, phoned her and said they’d been wanting this book written for 15 years.
“They knew of the Chelsea family and sent me a contract, which was great because I was able to tell Andy in the spring of 2017 ‘we’ve got a publisher; it’s going to happen,’ and I’m sharing royalties with Phyllis Chelsea,” she said.
The book was written from hundreds of hours of personal interviews with Andy and Phyllis Chelsea.
“They are individuals of great resolve,” said Parks Mintz. “When they decided ‘we’re changing our lives; we’re giving up alcohol’ — and 2017 marked 45 years of sobriety for them — well done, and then taking their message to help others — it was always about helping others. Once they saved themselves from the trauma and harm done by residential school and the subsequent alcoholism, they then looked beyond their own family and helped family and friends in their own community and then took their message nationally and internationally as well.
“I admire Andy and Phyllis Chelsea very much, and their daughter and their sons. They’re a great family. I grew to care about them and care for them. You can’t write this book and not get connected to a family that’s had such trauma inflicted upon them and risen above it. I admire them greatly.”
Parks Mintz says the Chelseas had a huge impact on their community, and they were invited to speak internationally about how they helped turn things around on the reserve.
“Andy exerted tough love on individuals, on people he cared about, and Phyllis was the iron hand and the velvet glove,” said Parks Mintz. “They were a great pair. They never judged anyone. Initially, it was the two of them sitting with a chap from Alcoholics Anonymous in their living room, and within seven or eight years, a community that was 100 per cent alcoholic was 98 per cent sober. The village was ready to heal, and Andy and Phyllis were the examples of ‘oh, this is how our life could be.’ Gradually, one or two friends would join their group, and then more, and it just spread because people saw their lives could be better.”
Parks Mintz will be sharing Resolve as part of the Quesnel Museum Heritage Speaker Series Thursday, Oct. 24 at 7 p.m. at the Quesnel Council Chambers at 410 Kinchant St.
She will also be speaking and doing a reading Friday, Oct. 25 at Nuthatch Books in 100 Mile House.