Haida elder Niis Waan (Harvey Williams) is presented with an honorary doctorate by Ralph Nilson, VIU president and vice-chancellor, left, and Louise Mandell, VIU chancellor, at the university’s convocation ceremony Monday. CHRIS BUSH/The News Bulletin

Haida ‘wisdom-keepers’ receive university’s highest honours at VIU convocation

Nine Haida elders presented with honorary doctorates for preserving Haida language and culture

Nine Haida elders have received Vancouver Island University’s highest award for their work to preserve their language and culture.

This week more than 1,000 students will graduate from 67 VIU programs during five convocation ceremonies, but those ceremonies began Monday at the Port Theatre by first honouring the elders’ work with presentations of honorary doctorate degrees to Ildagwaay (Beatrice Harley), Taalgyaa’adad (Betty Richardson), Jiixa (Gladys Vandal), SGaanajaadsk’yaagaxiigangs (Kathleen Clara Hans), Niis Waan (Harvey Williams), Sing.giduu (Laura Jormanainen), GwaaGanad (Diane Brown), Yang K’aalas (Grace Velma Jones) and Gaayinguuhlas (Roy Charles Jones). They dedicated more than 20 years to preserving and revitalizing their language and culture through the Skidegate Haida Immerson Program, which they created in 1998.

The elders, whose average age is 84, lived through the time of the residential school system and are descendants of a people who numbered more than 13,000 prior to European contact that through war, disease and government policies, dwindled to just 588 souls, and represent the fight to preserve First Nations culture and languages, which are disappearing worldwide.

“Indigenous languages are disappearing at an alarming rate,” Louise Mandell, VIU chancellor, said in her convocation address. “Every few weeks an elder dies, with an ancient tongue taken to the spirit world. The sum total of those ideas and dreams and myths and beliefs and thoughts, all that intellectual wealth lost. Canada, one of the worst situations, where 40 to 45 indigenous languages are disappearing. In Canada, indigenous people are the only ones who can speak the language born of this land.”

Together, the nine men and women created “an avalanche” of Haida language in the Skidegate dialect that Mandell described as a “civilizational triumph.”

“These nine Haida elder wisdom-keepers are living libraries and have completed a great work to support and enliven an entire culture,” said Kevin Borserio, VIU Skidegate Haida Immersion Program coordinator, in his awards presentation address.



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Haida elder GwaaGanad (Diane Brown) is presented with an honorary doctorate by Ralph Nilson, VIU president and vice-chancellor, left, and Louise Mandell, VIU chancellor, at the university’s convocation ceremony Monday. CHRIS BUSH/The News Bulletin

Vancouver Island University started its series of five spring convocation ceremonies at the Port Theatre Monday afternoon. Approximate 1,000 students will receive their degrees and certificates at the ceremonies that run through Wednesday, June 5. CHRIS BUSH/The News Bulletin

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