For Edward Johnson Jr., the easy choice would have been to continue working on the West Coast Trail. He was comfortable there. He had the skills and training to do the job, and he could have kept doing it as long as he wanted.
But his lack of education was holding him back. Instead of receiving advancements in his career, he watched as his friends and co-workers moved up the ladder. He had made it as far as he could, and he did not want to settle for that.
But reading and writing has always been difficult for Edward because he is dyslexic. He wanted to do more with his life, but the challenges he faced academically were holding him back.
“I missed out on opportunities because I didn’t have the paperwork to back me up. I had the experience and the skills, but my dyslexia means it is a harder road,” he says. “I wanted to go back to school, but I was scared because it involved reading and writing.”
As he looked around, he started to realize he had to face his demons before it was too late. Many of his co-workers were in their 50s and manual labour was the only skill they had. Unfortunately, they acknowledged that their bodies would soon not be up to the challenging physical labour – what would they do then?
With the goal of returning to the West Coast Trail as a contractor, Edward decided to go back to school to become a carpenter. With help from Huu-ay-aht First Nations, Edward enrolled in Vancouver Island University and took a very difficult first step.
“The first book I ever read was a carpentry book,” he says. “Now, since then I have read many books.”
A few of the ones he really liked, include “Power and Love,” “A Theory and Practice of Social Change,” “Daring Greatly,” “How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead,” and “The Power of Vulnerability Teachings on Authenticity, Connection, and Courage.”
He says it was a huge advantage to have financial support for his tuition, but, under the Indian Act, he still had to cover all of his other expenses. He says, now that Huu-ay-aht is a treaty nation, that has changed. Students can now apply to have a living allowance as well, something Edward says would have made a huge difference to him.
After deciding he wanted to go to school, the next step was a difficult one. It meant allowing the education system to label him as disabled so that he could get the tools he needed to succeed in his program.
“Just going to class was a big step for me,” he says. “Before in school, I was told I was a ‘dumb indian’ because I couldn’t read. My teachers made me feel like it was just too much work, and it wasn’t worth it.”
He says being tested touched on wounds that are difficult to heal, but they were essential to face in order to move forward. Growing up dyslexic made him feel like a burden. He felt disappointed in himself. He felt shame and anger.
These feelings ran deep and went back two generations in his family. Edward is the son of two Indian Residential School survivors, and his grandparents also went through the IRS system.
“You can’t change the past, but you can begin to put a halt to the negative effects of colonialism. We can begin to extract the negative teachings passed down from the Indian Residential Schools and become strong again.”
But it won’t be easy, he explains. “I could’ve easily stayed in my safe zone and not gone anywhere else. I didn’t want to change. The shame that I carried kept me silent and still, but I understand change is necessary in order to get back to the teachings that were taken from us.
“Education is the key to our future. As Aboriginal People, we are growing rapidly, and we need to be prepared for our growth. We need to heal and talk more, and then we need to change and move forward.”
At first being labeled bothered him, but after eight hours of extensive testing, his learning disability was documented, and he received software and equipment he needed to succeed. More than anything, he wanted to learn, but he had to do it in a different way than other students. Finally, he had the tools he needed to try.
A program called Read and Write Gold plugged it into his laptop and read to him. Adding Dragon Naturally Speaking to his tool box meant he could speak to his computer and it would write for him. Finally, he was given an opportunity to learn his way – he could put his thoughts down on paper, and his world was opening up.
“I’ve always felt silenced, but today’s technology has helped me discover my voice. It has helped me discover something that has been sleeping. I feel that I’m capable of doing anything I feel like. I’m finally awake. Today I don’t feel like a burden. I feel independent, and it feels great.”
Although Edward no longer works as a carpenter, getting an education has enabled him to branch out and try new things. It made him confident in himself and his abilities. It also made him realize that there is nothing he cannot accomplish.
Today, Edward works as a Program Manager for Huu-ay-aht First Nations, a position he is confident he could not have taken on without first getting an education in the trades.
But he also acknowledges that an education will only take you so far. In his case, he also had to deal with the shame he felt as a result of his dyslexia and childhood abuse.
“Shame kept me quieter. Going to school gave me the confidence to face other things and make other changes. The more work I did on myself the quieter the shame becomes.”
Edward says it is important to acknowledge that you can’t do it all on your own and to accept the help that is offered.
“It started with someone believing in me and offering me the Assistant to the Executive Director job. Now I have a position that is directly linked to the Nation’s Strategic Goals and vision,” he says. “Sometimes it’s hard, but when someone sees something in you that you don’t see yourself, and they offer you an opportunity, you have to take it, even if it scares you.”