Xeni Gwet’in Chief Roger William will receive an honorary Doctorate of Laws from the University of Northern British Columbia in May.
William said he didn’t ever imagine receiving an honorary degree but the fact UNBC is turning 25 and that’s the number of years the William Aboriginal Rights and Title Case took be resolved, makes it an awesome coincidence.
“It’s such an honour,” William said of the degree Friday. “UNBC opened its doors 25 years ago and we started our fight 25 years ago.”
William said he learned of the honorary degree in January after professor Titi Kunkel who teaches at UNBC’s Quesnel campus nominated him.
“She called me in October 2014 and asked if she could nominate me,” William recalled.
Describing him as a walking encyclopedia, Kunkel told the Tribune William has a wealth of Indigenous knowledge about the Tsilhqot’in land, people, culture, history, and way of life.
“Through his way of life, he acquired knowledge,” she said. “He spent endless hours with elders and community members who validated his knowledge. Not to mention the hours he spent giving his testimony and answering questions during the William case.”
Because of the trial and its historic outcome, there is now written documentation about the Tsilhqot’in way of life, and that is a significant contribution to Indigenous knowledge, she added.
“Roger travels all over the place to shares his knowledge and is truly a role model for other Indigenous people,” Kunkel said. “He deserves western or academic recognition for his contribution to knowledge and that is what this honorary degree is about.”
When William accepts his degree during the College of Arts, Social and Health Sciences ceremony on May 29 at the UNBC campus in Prince George, he said he will be thinking of many people.
“My wife Shannon and my children have all supported me and many times over the community has elected me on council and as chief,” he said.
The Supreme Court Canada case could never have been won without the support of the Tsilhqot’in leaders, he added.
During the court case 26 elders testified and today ten of them are no longer living.
“So many people made sacrifices,” William said. “And long ago many elders told me the case would have to go all the way to the Supreme Court. They were right.”
William listed the Chilcotin War of 1864, the small pox epidemic of 1862’s decimation of 80 to 90 per cent of his people, reservations and residential schools as other hurdles his elders and ancestors faced.
“I will be thinking of all of those things when I accept my degree,” he said.
“Chief William has been a lifelong advocate for the preservation of the traditional Tsilhqot’in way of life,” UNBC noted in a press release about his honorary degree. “He has also been an active board member with the Cariboo Chilcotin Aboriginal Training and Education Council since 1990 and served on the RCMP E Division Commanding Officer’s Aboriginal Advisory Committee from 1990 to 2003.”
Since 2011, William has represented the West Chilcotin electoral area on the Cariboo Regional District Board of Directors.