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Capilano University's Sunshine Coast kálax-ay campus welcomes its first Elder

shíshálh Nation Elder Robert Joe is joining kálax-ay campus
N. Elder Robert Joe
shíshálh Nation Elder Robert Joe is Capilano University kálax-ay campus’s first Elder. The campus held a welcoming ceremony Feb. 7

shíshálh Nation Elder Robert Joe sees the potential for a role reversal as he takes on his new post at Capilano University’s kálax-ay campus. Joe is kálax-ay’s first Elder and was celebrated in a welcoming ceremony held on-campus Feb. 7. 

“We want to turn it around, intertwine our teaching, our culture, our way of life. You guys learn from us the way it was, not the non-natives telling us what it was like,” he told the crowd of socially distanced invitees. 

“To be invited to be an Elder – them with open arms – is humbling,” Joe told Coast Reporter. “It’s an honour. I want to help teach our culture in what I believe is the right way and the stories that a lot of non-natives, they don’t know.”

Born and raised on shíshálh traditional territory, Joe points to a lot of teachings from his grandfather, late mother, and uncles as he looks toward his new relationship with Capilano University.

Joe spoke of his grandfather, Clarence Joe Sr., who as a boy was an interpreter for the older people. “He was brought up in a political world where he learned a lot,” said Joe. “He knew English through the residential school. They kind of chose him to be the secretary for the nation, to help understand when Indian agents used to come in and try to – both ways – buffalo and hoodwink the chiefs and leaders of the day.”

Clarence Joe Sr. would go on to be a fisherman, a logger and the band manager for more than 30 years. He’d bring his grandson (and others “I was one of many,” says Joe) on the boat and point out areas of importance, sharing what he knew. 

“My grandfather taught me, this is all yours. What the sun touches, what the rain falls on, what the snow falls on, even in the shade. Our grandfather taught us that.”

Following in his grandfather’s footsteps first as a logger, then political activist, also twice elected to shíshálh council and spending 13 years heading up the nation’s rights and title department, Joe is particularly against the treaty process. “They’re still trying to colonize us in a different way. They’re still trying to shrink us in our land territory,” he said. “When you look at all these mountains, it’s full of resources. And that’s what they want – the resources – so they can get richer, and we stay as a small little reserve, small, little homes, small little properties. 

“There are no more fish to go out there and fish. The logging is sparse. People don’t understand that the government is still trying to minimize us, and turn us into non-natives.”

But, Joe is hoping for a revival of shíshálh culture to come back “one step at a time, one day at a time.”

“I hope to teach what I know, what I’ve been taught and hopefully [students] can bring it out into the community and it expands into the world,” he said. 

Joe has done a lot of work for their people, said Wesley Jeffries, Joe’s friend, relative and another former shíshálh  councillor, at the ceremony. “He’s put his name out there and he’s put his physical self out on the front line for our people.

“He carries a lot of knowledge, not only in academics, but also in tradition, culture and spirituality. And he’s one of the ones that knows our territory.

“Robert knows a lot of the locations of our traditional hunting grounds and fishing grounds and a lot of where our people had settled in villages.” 

“One thing he won’t share is where he gets the red snapper,” joked Jeffries. 

It’s full-circle for Joe to be at the university, to be mentoring students, said his daughter Ashley Charleson, speaking to the crowd. Her father had attended day school, his parents and grandparents went to residential school. 

Joe attended day school for kindergarten and Grade one. “The racism was just something else,” he said. 

He described stone fights on the soccer field between kids at day school and the kids at residential school, as a five-year-old. “We used to stone each other and recess and we used to do it again at lunch. And that’s how it was for us. Because the boys in the residential school and the girls, that was their home and they were protecting it,” he said. “We were the outsiders because we got to go home every day.”

After Grade one, Joe and his cousins were the first shíshálh kids to go to Sechelt Elementary. “That was so hard, so difficult, because we left all our family members up in the day school, even though it was very abusive,” he said. “We went to a white school and we had to defend ourselves at recess and lunchtime. 

“It was the same thing, fighting. We got teased…things stolen from us. 

“That’s what we went through and that’s just a minute part of it.”

“It’s been a life that’s been very challenging. Our biggest problem was racism. Still is today, and that’s difficult to deal with.”

On the topic of reconciliation, “To be honest with you, I’m not the biggest fan,” Joe told the crowd. “I’m a warrior first of all for our nation, as Wesley mentioned earlier, fighting for your land and fighting for your territory, fighting what you believe in, what you believe in is right and fighting [for] what you’ve been taught by your family.”

When it comes to being the Elder for kálax-ay campus, also working with his wife Jessica Silvey (“My General Jess,” Joe calls her), Joe looks to be “open, honest and truthful and hopefully the kids will like what we want to do, what we want to share.”

The sharing is coming from First Nations people, wanting to share first with their own families and nation, opening it up to other nations, and then the non-Indigenous people, said Joe. “And hopefully that they’d understand what we went through, what we’re going through and what’s going to happen in the future.”