An historic moment marks the appointment of a new chancellor of Vancouver Island University. Ecotrust Canada President Ian Gill reports from the swearing-in ceremony in Nanaimo.
What was the title of Rohinton Mistry's book?
Such a Long Journey.
Well, that could easily describe the journey of Canada's First Nations who are increasingly returning to positions of influence and importance in Canadian life.
And what a momentous step it was last week, when A-in-chut, Hereditary Chief Shawn Atleo, stepped onto the stage at the Port Theatre in Nanaimo and was installed as Chancellor of Vancouver Island University.
“Welcome to our canoe,” said Dr. Ralph Nilson, president of VIU, which was founded in 1936 and was best known as Malaspina College until it got university status earlier this year.
Shawn Atleo is, among other things, BC Regional Chief of the Assembly of First Nations. He was also, until recently, a board member of Ecotrust Canada. Before Shawn served on our board, his father Umeek, Dr. Richard Atleo, was an Ecotrust Canada board member.
Umeek was in the audience last week, and was enthusiastically remembered as having been the first First Nations person to graduate from the University of British Columbia with a doctorate. And here was his son, Shawn, being elevated to the role of Chancellor at VIU.
As befitting such an occasion, it seemed about half the population of Ahousaht (Shawn's home village on the West Coast) was at the event. Lots of songs and drumming and impassioned speeches. Even the singing of Oh Canada ("home and native land") seemed a bit more all-embracing, and all-inclusive, than usual.
Shawn exchanged his woven woolen blanket and cedar headband for the lush velvet robe and cape of Chancellor. He gave the university a gorgeous carved paddle – an apt symbol of the journey, the canoe, and the navigator's role he has been asked to take on.
In his speech, Shawn was at pains to thank his family, his elders, and his (very) extended family for having helped him achieve such a remarkable step on a remarkable journey. He recalled being in the House Commons in Ottawa, flanked by his grandmother and Umeek, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper said sorry earlier this year to Canada's Aboriginal people for the wrongdoing at residential schools.
His gran, he recalled, told him that it felt like a heavy page in history was being turned over, something that was possible because “we are doing it together.”
“Our people are now being seen,” Shawn said.
And the first ever Aboriginal person to be installed as Chancellor of a university in BC concluded by paraphrasing Confucius, by way of underlining just how momentous an occasion this was.
Tell me and I'll forget
Teach me and I'll remember
Include me and I'll understand.
“Thank you for including us,” Shawn said. Amen to that.