NANAIMO — The community is remembering and celebrating the legacy of a profound First Nations elder.
Snuneymuxw elder Ellen White passed away earlier this week in Nanaimo. She was in her mid-90s.
A decorated and celebrated author, storyteller and educator, White was renowned locally for her work at Vancouver Island University. She was known for her dedication to traditional ways, and her dedication to education as an important element in social change and community-building.
White, also known by her Coast Salish name, Kwulasulwut or Many Stars, was honoured with the Order of B.C. in 2011, the Order of Canada in 2017 and was given an honorary doctorate by VIU in 2006.
Carol Stuart, interim-provost and vice-president academic at VIU, said White was instrumental in founding the university's First Nations studies program. She became one the school's first elders-in-residence.
"She had a huge impact on students because she was co-teaching that program with faculty in the classroom. She brought her culture and language to the classroom as well as being a role model and bringing forward the importance of education to build communities and create social change within the Aboriginal communities."
Stuart said White was very open and willing to share her knowledge and teachings, noting her belief in the importance of building bridges between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.
"Education about culture, understanding of each other and the difference in perspectives was really important to her and that can't help but have an impact on people because they're then open to the learning and the teachings she had," Stuart said.
White's legacy is physically honoured at VIU with a garden bearing her name. Stuart said more importantly, her spirit and memory will carry on.
"We have elders-in-residence currently who have looked to her as a teacher and mentor and spiritual guide. They carry her with them on campus."
Her work was wide-reaching and difference making.
White's teachings and writings provided knowledge for treaty negotiations. She campaigned for electricity on her reserve, worked to bring Aboriginal culture into the school system and helped develop artifact exhibits at the Nanaimo Museum.
Former Snuneymuxw councillor Bill Yoachim said he's overwhelmed with a heavy heart over her passing and feelings of joy at the privilege of knowing "Auntie Ellen."
"She was inspirational in her ability to blend worlds and communities long before reconciliation. She embodied reconciliation before it became the buzz word it is today," Yoachim said.
He credited her for many of his own accomplishments, saying her work is felt by generations before him and will continue to those beyond.
"Her whole teachings were promoting western education while always noting Indigenous rights and culture. Her teachings were profound."
Yoachim struggled to narrow down the scope of her legacy. "Bridging worlds, being true to yourself, honour and respect. She was always about bringing the best out of someone."
In a statement, the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council of Port Alberni said White was a tremendous source of moral and cultural support for many of their students attending VIU.
"She brightened up the world for so many young minds, and we are so very saddened to hear of this loss," the statement said. "She created so many stars around her in the students whose lives she touched, who have since gone on and made lasting and positive impacts on our world."
On Twitter: @domabassi
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