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UVic Honorary Degree for Neil J. Sterritt

Congratulations to Mapping My Way Home author, Neil J. Sterritt - he received an honorary degree from UVic Nov. 14. Here's what the university says about him:

Sterritt, a resident of 150 Mile House, was a driving force behind one of the most important court decisions in Canada on Indigenous land claims - the 1997 Supreme Court of Canada Delgamuukw decision that confirmed the existence of Aboriginal title in BC. Sterritt and other Gitxsan leaders worked with former UVic president Howard Petch in the early 1980s to develop and implement the First Nations teacher education program at UVic and in Sterritt’s home community of Hazelton.

Here is Neil's address to the graduating students:

Madam Chancellor (Shelagh Rogers, President (Jamie Cassels), thank you, good afternoon graduates

To begin, I wish to recognize the University of Victoria for its lengthy support of aboriginal education including the introduction in the early 1980s of the First Nations Teacher Education Program to my home town in Hazelton, and as well to acknowledge the unique Indigenous Law Program and Indigenous Legal Lodge for teaching and research in Indigenous Law initiated by Professors John Burrows and Val Napoleon of the Law School. These are pioneering initiatives.

Sometimes, we make our way through life, partly by design, and partly by accident. In March 1956, I quit school and went to work logging in the bush. I loved the bush and logging. Later that fall, I walked into our house on a Saturday evening, and my mother said, “There is a plane to Vancouver tomorrow, and you are going to be on it. You are going back to school.”

From then on, my formal education took me in various directions, but in particular, job choices and education steered me towards geological work, mapping and more bush life. I worked in various parts of the world, but we – my wife, Barbara, our two sons, and I – returned home in 1973 when the landmark Supreme Court decision in the Calder case came down. By then, Gitksan and Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs were ready to seek their own recognition of aboriginal title and rights, and asked some of us younger people to help them. With my mapping background and project management experience, that was a natural niche for me.

This also led to my work for the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en peoples during the National Aboriginal Constitutional conferences, and then the Delgamuukw case, working with elders who had been born in the late 19th and early 20th century. This culminated with our historic victory in Delgamuukw, and with the establishment of the constitutional right of aboriginal title, and a framework within which to achieve reconciliation.

So, let me tell you how I think we accomplished what we did. I’ll begin with a story about a Gitxsan elder.

This is my second convocation at the University of Victoria. This university – under the visionary leadership of then President, Dr. Howard Petch – conferred an Honorary Doctor of Laws on Gitxsan Elder Peter Williams in 1984. Dr. Williams was 83 at the time, and was the fourth aboriginal person to be so honored by this university.

Gitxsan leaders at Kitwancool Village had spent 40 years fighting against the imposition of the reserve system. Frustrated, in 1927 the federal government finally sent surveyors with police protection to survey the reserve over the strong opposition of the leaders from their community. Kitwancool men and women removed the surveyors’ stakes, were arrested, and four men served time in prison, Peter Williams among them. This led to Peter’s interest in law, and he became a self-taught lawyer with a law library of his own. Peter is one of my role models, with his intellectual curiosity, courage and perseverance. He, among others, paved my way to today.

My second story is about elder Fred Johnson and his wife Maggie. Fred was born in 1893 and died in 1988. He gave important evidence as a plaintiff in the Delgamuukw trial. Fred was one of many aboriginal elders I worked with who got their way using honey rather than vinegar. Fred phoned the Indian Agent in Hazelton one day and their conversation went like this, in the Gitxsan language,

Fred:               Mr. Indian Agent, I have a problem. There is a leak in my basement.

Indian Agent: Oh, too bad.

Fred:               Yes, it is. I’m not worried for me. It’s my wife, Maggie – she can’t swim.          

Fred and Maggie’s plumbing was fixed.

These stories highlight the point that the governments of the day, and the courts, have made life very difficult for aboriginal people throughout BC and elsewhere. Nevertheless, the elders we worked with never lost their sense of integrity, dignity and humour. They helped our generation get through the challenges posed by colonialism, racism and neglect by following our laws and modelling resilience, respect, and love.

So, it’s hard to believe that 2017 marks the 20th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Delgamuukw. I was lucky to have been involved in one of the biggest legal victories for Indigenous people in BC, Canada and around the world. This decision is now being relied on by Indigenous peoples in Thailand as well as Australia, New Zealand and the United States. The Delgamuukw case changed everything and brought a remedy to the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en Nations that resulted in changes in the way the law viewed territoriality, our Chief’s authority, values, and commercial rights. It paved the way to the reconciliation road in Canadian society, and to shifting the colonial paradigm. What has emerged from the Supreme Court is that there is room for more than one people in the Constitution. Our country has different cultural narratives, world views, titles and jurisdictions co-existing and operating on the same landscape.

Implementation is reconciliation – this is Canada’s strength and it is our work. The Chiefs took a big risk by putting their history and culture on the line before a court, and it paid off.

Did you know that family history is one of the key determinants as to whether someone attends university? I hold up my hands to those of you who are the first in your families to achieve a post-secondary education – you are the role models for those within your family who can dream of receiving the benefits of a post-secondary education.

I want to congratulate all of you graduating students and your families. This is a milestone in your lives, but there will be challenges in the future. Don’t be afraid to take risks. Don’t be afraid to stand on your values and principles. And, take the example of Lalt, Fred Johnson, to get your way in life, a dose of humour always helps.

I am honored to be granted this degree. I am accepting it not on my own behalf, but on behalf of all the Gitxsan elders – the Simgiigyat and Sigidimhanak – with whom I have worked throughout the past forty years, and on whose shoulders I stand. Thank you so much. Wil sabax algyagaiy.