Flanked by her daughter Sarah and eldest son Jared, Maggie Smith holds a photograph of her son Tim Postma who died on the streets of Chilliwack on Jan. 22, 2020. (Paul Henderson/ The Progress)

Maggie and Tim: A residential school survivor and her son who died on Chilliwack’s streets

A young man’s tragic death and his mother’s survival through hardship

Even those who did not know Tim Postma might recognize his face from the streets in the downtown Chilliwack area.

He wasn’t a troublemaker or a criminal, but Tim was homeless, struggled with substance abuse issues and, when he was in Chilliwack, wandered the streets with friends from Central Community Park to Salish Park, spending time at Ruth & Naomi’s and on the streets in between.

He didn’t live with his mother Maggie Smith who did her best to take care of him when she could, working five, six, sometimes even seven days a week at her job at a retirement residence. She is well known at her local coffee shop, the Salish Plaza Starbucks, where staff say she often comes in to buy her regular drink and sometimes even drop off home-baked treats.

Maggie didn’t let Tim live with her at her rental apartment given his increasingly problematic drug use, but she looked for him on the streets to check in on him in between her shifts. She would let Tim come to shower, have a meal, even sleep once in a while at her apartment.

One day in the days leading up to Tim’s death in somewhat uncertain circumstances in a commercial trailer in an alley behind a business on Jan. 22, 2020, Maggie said Tim was at her place. Tim had a shower while Maggie made supper for the two of them.

But Tim’s desperation and addiction became too much, and he tried to take Maggie’s TV.

“I said, ‘I can help you but I can’t help you that way,’” Maggie said in an interview with The Progress.

“That was the last time I saw him or talked to him.”

While for most of his troubled years, Tim’s issues were with alcohol and marijuana, only relatively recently did Maggie find him using of needles. Naive on the use of any drugs, Maggie was shocked yet non-judgmental. She wanted Tim to get better, wanted to point him in the right direction, but never by a pointing finger.

• • •

It was at approximately 3 a.m. on Jan. 22 when RCMP officers on patrol downtown smelled smoke and began to search for the source, according to Chilliwack RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Mike Rail.

The fire was found in an alley off Victoria Avenue in a commercial trailer between two business.

Tim Postma was found inside the trailer, unresponsive. He was transported to Chilliwack General Hospital where he later died.

The Progress is awaiting the official BC Coroners Service report on Postma’s death, but his mother was told he died of hypothermia and asphyxiation. While needles were found around him and it was likely he was consuming drugs, Maggie doesn’t think he overdosed.

Maggie agreed to talk to The Progress about Tim’s life and death, a conversation joined by Tim’s older sister Sarah and older brother Jared.

All too often there are reports of a body found, or an overdose victim, or a missing person, and sometimes there are no reports at all about those things. Maggie agreed it was worthwhile to say a little something about Tim, a human being, a son, a boyfriend, a brother, a hurting young man, to put a face to the opioid crisis and homelessness and mental health issues and the tragedy facing too many people in Canada.

“I was trying to help him,” Maggie said. “I told him there was help, it’s just that he was not ready for help.”

Maggie worked long shifts often six days a week, but after or before she would often go looking for Tim and just sit with him and other street people in places like Central Community Park. Sometimes his friends would ask her if she had Tylenol-3s, but Tim would always make it clear to his friends that his mother did not do drugs.

Maggie said she found it informative to be with Tim, if briefly, on the streets with others suffering as he did.

“That was great because it really taught me a lot about unconditional love, getting to know people and listen,” she said. “Let them talk and get to know them instead of being judgmental.”

According to those on the streets, Tim was a positive force, a bright light would was friendly and helpful to others.

His sister Sarah said she knew that Tim always made sure “his bros” were taken care of. His brother Jared said that when things were going well and he was with his girlfriend, they travelled and were living life to the fullest.

Maggie herself always has a smile, her tiny frame walks around town to her work and to Starbucks, often delivering homemade goodies to people she knows. She endures with that smile and with strength despite a history tainted by Canada’s terrible past with residential schools. She was taken from her home in Port Douglas at the age of five. She also suffered sexual abuse in foster care, and later says domestic abuse in her relationship with Tim’s father. (Tim’s father John denies any such abuse occurred, only that they had a troubled marriage unresolved even through counselling.)

But she blames none of that on Tim’s situation, let alone his death on the streets.

For now she is trying to grieve as best as she can, but until she has Tim’s ashes it isn’t easy.

“Today has been a good day,” she said while chatting at Starbucks. “Yesterday I broke down.”

Walking to take a photo at Salish Park with Maggie, Jared and Sarah, another regular from the streets walked by. At first he asked if they had a dollar. Then he saw Tim’s brother and asked, “Is that you Jared?”

He looked shocked and emotional as he expressed his sadness at the death of Tim on the streets.

“He was my friend,” this broken young man said, tears in his eyes.

•••

More than 50 years ago, Maggie Smith lived in the tiny and remote community of Port Douglas at the north end of Harrison Lake where she and her siblings heard and spoke the Halq’emeylem language.

Then, one day she was gone.

Maggie doesn’t remember how or exactly when, but she and her siblings, like approximately 2,000 Indigenous children in British Columbia, were taken to the St. Mary’s Indian Residential School in Mission.

“I don’t know how I got there,” Smith said. “I just remember being there.”

Born in 1963, Maggie was at St. Mary’s from 1968 to 1971, a time that had a lifelong impact on her.

Two classroom experiences are fresh in her mind as examples of trauma that impacted her greatly. One time she recalls a teacher over her desk holding a pointer stick. The teacher was yelling at her, trying to get her to tell the difference between a capital “I” and a small “i”.

“She slapped the pointer stick on the desk and she scared me so much that I wet my pants,” Maggie said. “All the kids were laughing.”

Then there was the time when she got all her math answers wrong. She was sent to the principal’s office and got strapped for it.

Two examples of a learning environment that might not be uncommon in any school in the 1960s. But to be so far away from her family, so far removed from the culture she was born into, made everything worse.

“The hardest part was being away from your family all the time,” she said. “It was hard to understand why we needed to be taken away. You are there and you are lonely because your family is far away.

“They made us go to church and do confessions. I don’t remember my language at all. We weren’t allowed to speak our language.”

After her time in the residential school, her father, who was an alcoholic died when she was just 10. She then lived with her mother in Chilliwack where she endured all-too-common racism towards Indigenous people.

What saved her was her Christian faith. She started to go to church as a teenager and it stuck.

“Having faith helped me to overcome my past,” she said. “I think I needed that in my life.”

And while she did not suffer some of the more serious abuse many residential school survivors report, she knows some of her siblings suffered greatly. But no one much likes to talk about it.

“I don’t know what they went through.”

One younger sister is still dealing with her trauma. Her brother Lloyd lives in Pemberton but he doesn’t like coming off the reserve.

photoEventually Maggie got married and moved to Ontario. She had three children, Jared, Sarah and Tim, all with their father John Postma. The marriage deteriorated and while the children stayed in Ontario, in 2008 Maggie came back to Chilliwack.

“I came so I could have a better life and start over,” she said.

A petite woman, Maggie has a strength of spirit that she shares with all who meet her. She works long hours, sometimes six days a week at a retirement home. She goes to church, and she bakes and does crafts which she shares with friends and even strangers.

Maggie’s fear of learning persisted until about a decade ago when counselling helped.

But it was her son Tim’s struggles with substances and homelessness that captured much of her attention. Tim lived in various communities, but was mostly homeless here in Chilliwack. Maggie would go look for Tim in between shifts at work, sometimes to invite him home for a meal or to clean up, sometimes she would sit with him and his friends.

Her life of experiences, from her own trauma to her faith, helped inform how she dealt with not only Tim but with his friends. And she learned from them.

“Tim taught me not to judge,” she said. “All they need is someone to listen to them and not judge.”

She wanted him to get help, but she couldn’t make him, so she just did her best to help him day by day. But on Jan. 22 at approximately 3 a.m. Tim was found by an RCMP officer on a side street inside a commercial trailer that was on fire. He was taken to hospital but he died of hypothermia and asphyxiation.

Maggie was at work when they told her.

• READ MORE: One dead after early morning fire in commercial trailer downtown Chilliwack

Tim’s death has been very hard for Maggie. She is losing weight, she says, and doesn’t have much to lose. She is grieving and will be for some time.

She wanted to tell Tim’s story, and her own, to honour him so his death was not forgotten, so that Tim was not left to be just another statistic in the opioid crisis or the homelessness epidemic.

His death is one more thing Maggie will have to endure, but endure she has. So much was taken away from her and all of Canada’s Indigenous people through the residential school system, but Maggie wants to claw some of it back.

Through counselling she has overcome the fear imbued in her at St. Mary’s, and one day she is thinking of learning her traditional language.

“It took me a long time to overcome those fears. I had to find myself after being in a residential school. You don’t know which way to turn. You don’t know who you are. You have to find yourself and see who you are.

“I am now seeing myself as a person, not as that little girl who was living in fear.”

With faith and forgiveness she has overcome sexual abuse and cultural destruction, both are what she will need moving forward to get over the death of Tim.


Do you have something to add to this story, or something else we should report on? Email:
paul.henderson@theprogress.com

@PeeJayAitch
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