Seven years ago, 500 people turned up at the Croatian Cultural Centre on Commercial Drive to honour Marjorie White for her pioneering work in the aboriginal community.
The event was billed as a retirement party. There she was, at 69, humbly accepting praise from colleagues for staying true to the meaningful grind of establishing a series of support systems for aboriginal people in Vancouver.
Praise is what people give when one woman has had a hand in founding the city's first so-called friendship centre, an association for First Nations women and a halfway house for aboriginal men. Those achievements alone are remarkable for one person.
But White's roots in the community run deep and wide, with her having worked or volunteered for almost every aboriginal organization in the city, of which there were at least 60 at one time.
Outside of that work, she was a nurse, a member of the Vancouver Police Commission, a citizenship court judge, an investigator in the Office of the Ombudsman, a temporary elementary school principal and a mother to two daughters. So retirement seemed well deserved. Except that is not White's style. "If I stop what I'm doing, I may not survive just because my body is not used to that total relaxation of doing nothing," she says, sitting in a cafÃ© on Commercial Drive, sipping a Coke.
White, who marked her 76th birthday last week, met the Courier on a Thursday afternoon. That morning she was up at 5 a.m. to ensure she got to Matsqui Institution in Abbotsford by 8:30 to speak on behalf of an inmate at a parole hearing. Then she got back in her Honda Civic and drove to Vancouver for a meeting at the Circle of Eagles Lodge on Broadway. White founded the halfway house for aboriginal men in 1970 and was its executive director for 15 years.
That same week, she attended board meetings to discuss bursaries for aboriginal students, reviewed applications for the executive director's position at the Aboriginal Mother Centre and participated in a healing ceremony. The week prior, she was in Victoria for three days of meetings as a member of the elders' council of the B.C. Association of Aboriginal Friendship Centres. Fitting in an interview with the Courier only added to her taxing schedule, as relayed in a message on this reporter's answering machine.
"Oh hello, Mike. This is Marjorie. Sorry I haven't been able to connect with you. I've been trying to juggle some time around and I'm tied up tomorrow until three o'clock in the afternoon. Then on Friday morning I have a 10:30 appointment... like you, I've got so many appointments, it's driving me a little bit wacky right now. Anyway, call me..."
White has another appointment March 29 that she plans to keep. The Vancouver Aboriginal Community Policing Centre Society is hosting a ceremony that evening to honour White with the "Community Courage Award."
The award recognizes community members for outstanding contributions in the fields of justice, crime prevention and developing better relations between aboriginal people and law enforcement. Leadership in community healing is central to the award. The recognition means a lot to White but she is equally heartened by the society's decision to create a youth recipient category for the same award. Genoa Point, 22, will join White at the ceremony.
"I really value the contributions that the young people make to our communities because when we say they're our future leaders, I want them to believe that that's what they are," White says. "To receive an award at the age of 22, I think is just outstanding."
Point will be honoured for her work with aboriginal youth. Point leads cultural workshops and belongs to societies that work with police and social service agencies to better understand aboriginal people's history. She is also a newly appointed member of the Justice Institute of B.C.'s aboriginal advisory council.
The two women, who are 54 years apart, only met briefly last month but already Point says White's achievements are an inspiration to her as she continues on a path blazed by the elder, now her new friend.
"It's a lot of work," says Point, sitting in her office at the aboriginal community policing centre on East Hastings, reading from a list of White's career highlights. "All this and she's still going. I thought she was retired."
If there are parallels to be drawn in why these women are being honoured, it is in their drive to bring progress to a community they say is still healing from a history of colonialism.
A dark period of that history was recently broached in the interim report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Released last month, the report addressed the impacts of the residential school system on aboriginal people and the need for that history to be taught in schools.
Compounded by the "hard truths," as they were described in the report, was the aboriginal community policing centre's survey it released to the Vancouver Police Board at its meeting in February. The survey found 75 per cent of respondents want better relations between the aboriginal community and the Vancouver Police Department. Another 82 per cent cited the safety of aboriginal women in the Downtown Eastside and the East Side as a top concern; the majority of women who died at the hands of serial killer Robert Pickton were aboriginal.
For White, the findings in the reports only bolster her drive to care for the most vulnerable in the aboriginal community--the incarcerated, the homeless, the young mothers, the addicted--who are all overrepresented in these categories. "Those are the individuals I worry about the most," says White, who attended a residential school in Port Alberni, although considers her experience rare compared to other former students. She lost her mother at 14 and was taken in by her grandmother, who lived on the Tseshahat reserve adjacent to the school. "I always had a lot of monitoring from her and she always made sure that I was safe and OK. I think one of the reasons I escaped any abuse is because my grandmother was always at the school."
A dormitory supervisor named Arthur Henry Plint, who worked at the school from 1948 to 1968, was convicted of 18 counts of indecent assault against aboriginal students. Plint was sentenced to 11 years in prison in the 1990s.
White left Port Alberni for Vancouver in the late 1950s to enroll in nursing school and begin what became her lifelong work of helping aboriginal people. Her desire for change dates back to 1963 when she founded one of the first social service centres for aboriginal people in B.C. in a former YWCA building at Broadway and Alder.
It was crucial, she says, that a point of contact for aboriginal people be established in the city, one where they could receive guidance on health, housing and employment to get established.
The centres, of which there are now 25 in B.C., also provided jobs for aboriginal people, including one for a young man coping with substance abuse problems. White took him in, helped him with his addiction and gave him a job at the bus depot, where his role was to interact with aboriginal newcomers to the city.
That young man was Stewart Phillip, who is today Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs.
"In my view, in many ways, Marge is the matriarch of matriarchs," says Phillip by telephone during a break from a meeting of aboriginal leaders on the North Shore. "She's highly and deeply respected by generations of aboriginal people whose lives she has touched in many ways. If it wasn't for Marge, I wouldn't be here today."
Phillip recalls "my first boss" as being firm, strong and very committed in her leadership style. Every Monday morning, she would assemble her staff in her office to ask each of them to account for the week ahead.
It was at a recent ceremony to mark the re-opening of the Aboriginal Mother Centre on Dundas Street, where White is president of the board of directors, that Phillip recalled the effect White's management style had on him back in the early 1970s. "You still make me nervous," Phillip told her in a speech that generated laughter from the guests. "I still feel like I should have my report ready or something."
The fact that White continues to work in her mid-70s is rooted in the enormous challenges still facing aboriginal people and the need for wisdom from elders to make positive change, Phillip says. "Our people really have a difficult time retiring because there's such a demand for their expertise, knowledge and experience," he says, noting former chief of the Lytton First Nation Ruby Dunstan is having a retirement dinner this month. "When we talked about it in a recent workshop, everybody in the room laughed--because there's just no way she's going to be able to retire because people will be calling upon her, too."
A discussion about aboriginal culture with Genoa Point comes naturally during an interview at her office at the policing centre on East Hastings: a blessing for an elder has begun in a room outside her door.
The sound of a beating drum and the smell of burning sage filters into Point's office as she talks about leading workshops for aboriginal youth.
Whether it's cooking traditional food with elders, learning how to make moccasins or taking canoe trips with police, Point's end goal is the empowerment of youth.
"I try to give my best advice and if it's something more serious, then I'll point them in the direction of someone who can offer them more support," says Point, who is a graduate of John Oliver high school's Take a Hike program, an alternative elective geared at the outdoors. "I want them to take pride in their culture. I love our culture. It's amazing all the things we do. So I just want to share that with youth so they can share with other people and take pride."
As an aboriginal youth, there is little in the way of cultural activities in the city, she says, adding that many don't have access to the teachings of elders--a point also raised by White, who encourages youth to "adopt an elder."
Point's lineage is Musqueam (her mom) and Cree (her biological dad). Her family background is complicated, with Point having met her birth father once when she was a teenager. Her mother is a former drug and alcohol counsellor and lives in Vancouver but could not be reached for comment.
The one person who's been a constant in Point's life and someone she considers her real dad is Kenny Du Gray, a 47-year-old Metis man who raised her since she was a toddler.
"Really, she gets her smarts from her mom," says Du Gray by telephone from his apartment on Main Street. "I don't want to take all the credit because all I did was give her stability and feed her and tried to do my best."
He is fiercely proud of his daughter, describing her as hard working and modest. And like White, Du Gray is pleased the policing centre society has begun to recognize aboriginal youth for helping build positive links in a community otherwise perpetuated by social ills, displacement and history.
"It gives youth something and someone to look up to instead of the other stereotyping," he says, referring to lost young aboriginal people caught in cycles of poverty, addiction and criminal behaviour. "I know there's a lot of people out there that are in a bad way, but there's other people who are trying to change it."
All this praise is a little uncomfortable for Point, who confessed she didn't want to accept the award.
"It's just so weird to me."
"I don't know, it's just that an award is a big thing. One of my good friends was really happy for me and said I should go, that I should accept the award. And, she said, that's just the person who should get the award--the one who doesn't want it."
So you're going?
Have you got a speech ready?
"No, usually I'm not the type to prepare a speech and go over it. I just kind of speak from my heart."
As for White, she got in some practice two weeks ago at city hall, complete with an audience that included politicians, university professors and a visiting delegation from Norway. She gave the keynote address to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
Standing at a lectern inside the council chambers, where fellow aboriginal members welcomed her and others in song, White stressed the importance of people--not governments or legislation--to end discrimination. She concluded her speech with these words:
"It is my hope, in my remaining years, that I will see a Canada that practises equality."
She returned to her seat to resounding applause.