May 31, 2013 - 6:30am

At Vancouver Island University’s June 3 convocation ceremony, member and Chief of the Snuneymuxw First Nation, Douglas White III, will receive VIU’s Distinguished Alumni Award, which recognizes the outstanding accomplishments of an alumnus who has earned provincial or national prominence as a result of their exceptional professional achievements and/or service to society. White is being recognized for the exceptional leadership role he’s taken on First Nations issues both in his community and at provincial and national levels. It’s a role he takes very seriously thanks to lessons he learned from his family as a young boy.

During that time he spent many hours with his grandfather trolling for crabs and sea urchins in the waters near the Snuneymuxw lands and soaking in his grandfather’s powerful spirit and words of advice. What most impressed White was his grandfather’s commitment to serving his people, a message that was echoed by White’s parents who taught him his time should be spent ‘holding his people up’. White took those words to heart and through the course of a long career has dedicated himself to serving his people, most recently by taking on the role of Chief of Snuneymuxw.

Sharon Hobenshield, Director of Aboriginal Education at VIU, nominated White for the Award, and feels it’s important to recognize former students, like White, who have achieved his level of success. “Doug comes from a family who promotes and respects lifelong learning and education,” says Hobenshield. “He came through VIU’s First Nations Studies program where his mother, Joyce White, was one of the first instructors and his grandmother, Ellen White, was the first Elder in Residence. Together, they model the importance of First Nations inter-generational learning. Doug continues the legacy by being a leader in his community, provincially and nationally and inspiring Aboriginal students to pursue their own post-secondary goals in order to give back to their community.”

In order to best serve his people, White has dedicated his time and energy to learning about and understanding the history and legalities around First Nations issues in Canada. One of the first steps on that path was signing up for VIU’s First Nations studies program. It was an eye-opening experience.

“I wanted to understand the Crown – First Nations relationship and this program allowed me to do just that,” says White. “There were also Aboriginal people from different places in the program and I cherished the opportunity to learn from them and hear their stories. Often you grow up on your reserve not understanding that it’s just one facet about what it means to be Aboriginal in this country. To hear directly from people who were on the same path as me, but had arrived there with different experiences, gave me a broader understanding of Aboriginal issues.”

After graduating from VIU, White worked with the Snuneymuxw First Nation before studying law at the University of Victoria. While there he was elected the President of the Indigenous Law Students Association and was the Founding President of the Indigenous Law Club which organized the 40th anniversary celebration of the seminal Supreme Court of Canada decision in R. v. White and Bob, a decision which saw the Snuneymuxw’s treaty rights enforced.

He was called to the Bar of British Columbia on January 24, 2008 and articled for a law firm in Victoria until a dinner conversation changed the course of his life.

“I was out for dinner with Louise Mandell, ‘the mother of Aboriginal law in Canada’,” says White. “She told me she was retiring soon and asked if I’d like to work at her firm,” he says. “I’ve always sought out people who are masters at what they do and Louise absolutely falls into this category. For two years I worked across the hall from her, learning as much as I could about advancing the rights of First Nations.”

While he was working at the firm tragedy struck the Snuneymuxw when their Chief, Viola Wyse, unexpectedly passed way. As the community came to terms with what had happened a number of people asked White to return home and continue her work. He was torn but everything he’d been taught growing up led him to believe it was the right decision. In December 2009 he was elected Chief of Snuneymuxw. He focused on putting together a comprehensive implementation strategy for the Snuneymuxw Treaty of 1854 and on March 27, 2013, Snuneymuxw and BC achieved a Reconciliation Agreement addressing decision-making in Snuneymuxw territory and returning 2,200 acres of land to the Nation.

As well as working to further the rights of the Snuneymuxw, White represents First Nations across BC. He was elected to the three member political executive of the First Nations Summit in June 2010 which advocates on issues related to BC treaty negotiations.

He’s also a member of the BC First Nations Leadership Council of British Columbia and deals with the full range of Indigenous issues provincially, nationally and internationally. As Chair of the BC First Nations Consultation and Accommodation working group, he’s tasked to address and improve this key aspect of the Crown/First Nations relationship. White is also a frequent lecturer at universities on legal issues regarding Aboriginal peoples. Being recognized by VIU for all of this work means a lot to White.

“I’m very honoured to be recognized in this way by VIU. This important institution has given me so much over the years of enduring value equipping me to serve Indigenous Peoples. VIU has also been a strong partner in the work that is in front of all Canadians regarding relations between Indigenous Peoples and the rest of Canadian society. In addition to the First Nations Studies program that has been so central in my education, the University was a strong partner in our Pre-Confederation Treaties of Vancouver Island conference in 2012, and has been critical in creating space and opportunity for our city this year to respond to the challenge of racism and building meaningful reconciliation in our society. For all of this, I am so grateful.”

Tags: In the Community

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