A Secwepemc Elder from Williams Lake is one of 13 recipients of the 2018 Indspire Awards.
Described as a pillar in preserving her language and culture, Cecilia DeRose teaches ethnobotany and language at Thompson Rivers University Williams Lake, is an advisor to the Culturally Safe Dementia Care research project and works with the Elders College in Williams Lake and a local Aboriginal Head Start program.
The 82 year old travelled to Ottawa this week for the official announcement of the award recipients.
“It was hard to believe,” DeRose told the Tribune Friday from Kamloops. “It felt like there were so many more knowledgeable people worthy of the award.”
When she received a telephone call informing her she was getting the award a month ago, she thought it was a prank call.
“I gave them my daughter, Dede’s number,” she said.
Dede said at first her mom was intimidated when they arrived in Ottawa, but all of the award recipients were so friendly and were instantly close and exchanging phone numbers.
The recipients were filmed and photographed, introduced in the House of Commons during Question Period, met with the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, attended a reception with the Speaker of the House, and enjoyed a luncheon and a dinner.
It was DeRose’s second trip to Ottawa.
In 1954, she travelled with other First Nations people on a pilgrimage, she said, recalling how she shook hands with then Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent.
DeRose attended St. Joseph’s Mission residential school, but never stopped speaking Secwepemctsin.
“My father told us never to lose our language and when the elders spoke to us, we should speak to them in Secwepemctsin because they didn’t know English,” she recalled. “He told us never to be ashamed of who we are.”
Last fall DeRose and her friend Jean William led an ethnobotany field trip for Elders College in Williams Lake and DeRose said the class enjoyed it so much they’ve been asked to do another one in the spring.
Growing up, she was the fourth born of 10 children.
Her family lived in “the meadow” and her father hayed for various ranches in the Cariboo.
Simon Fraser University faculty member Marianne Ignace is one of the people who nominated DeRose for the award.
As a linguist and anthropologist, Ignace has known Cecilia for about 25 years.
“Cecilia is one of the most fluent speakers and has a life-long practice of language teaching,” Ignace said. “We’ve partnered together on teaching Secwepemctsin through all different types of courses — in the classroom, on the land and so forth.”
Recalling an incident about six years ago, Ignace described how she was out with DeRose and some other language teachers on an ethnobotany field trip with students on Quesnel Lake.
It was in September, it was cold and there was snow on the mountain tops.
When they arrived at the designated site the cabin they were supposed to use was fairly run down.
“Within minutes, Cecilia and the other elders started to build a fire, put on warmer clothes and prepare to camp on the land,” Ignace said. “Some of the students were reluctant, but the elders just took the skills that they knew all their lives and used them. Even though it was cold it was a joy to be with them.”
Ignace praised DeRose’s generosity and willingness to share her knowledge, which is appreciated by students of all ages.
It is fitting that her Secwepemc name is “Kye’7e”, which means grandmother.
The Indspire Awards will be handed out at a ceremony in Winnipeg on March 23, 2018.