As birthday presents go, the Order of B.C. isn’t too shabby.
Snuneymuxw First Nation elder Ellen White, who turns 89 on Tuesday (Sept. 13), was among 14 people named Friday as recipients of the 2011 award, the province’s highest honour.
White, affectionately known by many in the community as ‘Auntie Ellen’ or Kwulasulwut (her Coast Salish name meaning ‘many stars’), said the honour comes as a surprise.
“To me it was shocking,” she said. “I did those things without realizing how important they were.”
After 30 years as a lecturer and storyteller at UBC, White helped found the First Nations Studies program at Vancouver Island University (then Malaspina College) in 1994 and spent years as an Elder-in-Residence.
Her tireless work was aimed at helping people find their way.
“I feel very grateful that I did something important to other people,” White said. “You don’t think of these things while you’re doing it – it’s meaningful and important to you because you want to do it.”
Sylvia Scow, who works in VIU’s aboriginal education department, said the provincial recognition is well-deserved.
“It’s fabulous and about time,” Scow said. “She certainly deserves it.”
Scow described White’s tirelesss commitment to students and helping them understand and connect with the idea of “what she calls walking in both worlds.”
“She’s really dedicated to getting young people to learn about both academics and their culture,” Scow said. “She’s really dedicated to that process.”
Snuneymuxw Chief Douglas White III said at the core of his grandmother’s work was “the fundamental idea that there is an urgent need to create greater understanding in the general population of British Columbia and Canada about our different culture, beliefs, way of life and worldview.”
“Her work … has led to generations of students growing up with key knowledge about our peoples,” he added. “Everywhere I have gone in my work on behalf of First Nations and as Chief of Snuneymuxw, people ask how ‘Auntie Ellen’ is doing and expressing their love and gratitude toward her contribution to their lives.”
White also helped establish Tillicum House to assist aboriginal youth and has been a vocal advocate on women’s issues.
“To me, we’re taught from when we’re very young to honour people and look after people and help people,” she added. “It’s just the way of life.”
This is far from the first honour for White. She received the B.C. Community Achievement Award in 2007, was given an Honorary Doctorate by VIU, which also rededicated a garden at the Nanaimo campus in her honour last year.
The investiture ceremony for 2011 recipients will take place on Oct. 4 in Victoria.