Barb Dawson; provided by Barb Dawson

When the Knaqsnpi’lsmist ceremony was conducted in 2005 by the Okanagan National Alliance (ONA) to officially welcome UBC Okanagan to the Syilx Okanagan territory, the university was a very different place. The student population was a lot smaller, the engineering programs had just been introduced, and the Okanagan language, nsyilxcən, had not begun to be taught. It may have all been very new, but the relationship between the university and the land it is on has always focused on how to further educate everybody on the history of the Okanagan, regardless of whether it is the dark chapters of the past or the more beautiful ones.

According to Chiefs Assembly on Education, “only 4% of First Nations people on reserve, and 8% in total, have a university degree, compared to 23% of the Canadian population.” Within our campus, though the number has steadily increased over the years, the number of First Nations students remains comparatively low, even against the international student population. We also have to acknowledge that we still study at a campus in which a First Nations student goes through overt, racist aggressions in class. Why? It is not our story to tell.

The Phoenix was given the opportunity to chat with one of the first self-identified First Nations students to obtain the title of valedictorian. Barb Dawson is a self-identified First Nations woman from Whitehorse. Her matrilineage is from Atlin, British Columbia.  She is part of the Yanÿeidí clan, the Inland Tlingits of British Columbia. She also graduated with a BFA in Visual Arts as the Valedictorian for the 2020 class. In her interview, Dawson talks about graduating as a mature student, the significance of this achievement, and the relationship between UBCO and its First Nations community.

The Phoenix: How did your journey at UBCO start?  

Barb Dawson: My journey started in 2011, when I signed my son up for the Aboriginal Programs and Services kids camp.  I managed to get him into a couple years of it and noticed their Aboriginal Access programs pamphlet.  I read through it and decided to apply.  I have attempted post-secondary a few times and I really wanted to acquire a Visual Arts degree.  Something that was on my mind since I was in middle school.

TP: What was the best part of your experience while at UBCO?

BD:  I would have to say that the support that I had experienced from my professors was the best part.  I had a difficult start to my first year, so just the fact that I could talk about it with my professors, and their understanding of the situation, allowed me to take the time I needed and to not stress myself.

TP: What was your biggest challenge?  

BD: The biggest challenge was to just keep my goal in sight. It is not easy being a mature student as the majority of the student population are in their twenties, so you sometimes feel left out in a lot of activities.  

TP: What is something you like about UBCO? What would you like to change given the opportunity?  

BD: I liked the size of the university in the Okanagan.  I’ve visited UBC in Vancouver, and I find it overwhelming.  I visit UBC Vancouver quite often.  I love their new swimming pool.  If I had the opportunity, I would add a swimming pool to the Outlook 2040 plans.  I’ve shared this idea at all the symposiums that were held and seeking suggestions.  I feel it is something that is needed for all the students.  All students need a mutual environment to destress.  I know I would have appreciated it, if there was one.  

TP: Did you feel supported by the university and peers during your time on campus?  

BD: I really felt the support from my faculty, I was able to discuss many issues with all my professors, and I really think that the FCCS needs more financial support from the university.  The arts are what defines a society, but I understand that the numbers do not add up, and therefore they only get a certain amount in the year.  

TP: How would you qualify the relationships between UBCO and First Nations?

BD:  Well, that is a tricky question.  I am aware of the MOU with the Syilx Okanagan Nation, and I attended the flag raising of the Westbank First Nations in September 28, 2018.  As much of a celebration as it was, I also wondered why it was not raised when UBCO first opened its doors?  Or at the signing of the MOU in 2015?

TP: What does the achievement of Valedictorian mean to you?  

BD: This is a huge achievement for me, it has been a lifelong goal that I had carried with me, dreaming of the day when I might accomplish it.  With that in mind, I really pushed myself to keep going, as I really wanted to quit two years ago and then ongoing, up until I realized I could see the light.  When you are struggling in life and you reach a big goal, it is that much sweeter.  I was celebrating and jumping for joy, but when I found out I was nominated for student speaker I was jumping up and down in my living room.  And then I had to write a 3-minute speech and film a one-minute video, and I was not sure about it then.  I shared this with my son, and he said, do it, you never know.  And so, we filmed the video on top of a hill, and sent it in to be judged by the selection committee.  Oh my oh my! When I found out I was selected, I was on top of the world.  Never figured that I would end my university career like this, student speaker.  

This was a huge boost to my graduating from university. I was ecstatic.  Everything was going swimmingly until I got a phone call from my family and they told me that my mother was near death, that she had pneumonia and a possible heart attack.  I was crushed.  I left for Whitehorse as soon as I could and had to isolate myself for 14 days before I could see her.  My emotions were everywhere, and I had to figure out how I was going to complete my speech for the convocation.  Once my mother was stable and in a hospital, I was able to think about my speech.  So, I communicated with Alanna Vernon, Associate Director of Ceremonies and Events Office, and she scheduled freelance videographer Brenden Preston to assist me in the filming of my speech.  He was the one who suggested the Yukon river, and it was June, so the river was low, and we could film from the near middle of the Yukon river.  

I could not have planned it any better.  I’m just thankful my mother pulled through, and that I was there for her.  In the end, it all worked out.   Out of all the commotion, on the evening of June 17, I watched the Class of 2020 convocation with my cousin Georgina.  As we were watching, I was wondering who the guest speakers were going to be?  And when I heard that PM Justin Trudeau and Rich Mercer were the guest speakers for this year, I just about fainted. Well, not really but I was completely taken by surprise, and thanking myself for not giving up. I had a dream, and honestly, it surpassed any of my ideas of what a graduation might be.  It was truly an amazing ending to all that I had experienced in the past 6 years at UBCO.  

TP: What do you want people to know?  

BD: I want people to know that I carried my dream of obtaining my degree for many years and I never gave up on myself.  I was my own best friend and my own worst enemy, but through everything that I had experienced, I never gave up on myself.  I knew what I wanted to do, and I did it.