Dr. Ruby Dunstan is an extraordinary human being. I wish to recognize her remarkable achievements as both a human rights campaigner and an environmental champion. She’s an indigenous woman from the Lytton First Nation in the interior of BC. As a girl, she had direct experience of the now notorious and innocuously-termed Canadian Indian Residential School System (which the Chief Justice of Canada’s Supreme Court has stated was tantamount to cultural genocide.)
At the age of just five years old, Ruby Dunstan began attending the residential school near her village. In the first few days, she was beaten by the supervisors for not obeying orders correctly — however she, like other native children at the school, only spoke an indigenous language and didn’t understand English! After she was beaten, she would be left alone crying for her mom and dad whom she had been separated from by the state — it’s a heartbreaking image. But she had the strength of human spirit to emerge from that experience, not broken, but rather with the ability to help others in need.
When she was a young woman, she became a social worker who aided other survivors of the residential schools. Through her resolute investigations, a supervisor at the residential school she’d attended was convicted of sexual abuse of scores of children. This success at justice triggered a cascade of inquiries by indigenous communities across Canada into abuses at their residential schools. Dr. Ruby’s efforts helped create the momentum for the Government of Canada to establish the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which brought to light the full picture of this absolutely horrific and deeply shameful chapter in Canadian history (the profound social fallout for indigenous communities is evident everywhere).
She also became one of the first female elected Chiefs of a First Nation in Canada. From this position, she led a multi-year campaign to unite her people to prevent the destruction by industrial “clear-cut” logging of the magnificent Stein Valley wilderness. This large (1,000 square km) forested watershed near her home is a sanctuary for more than fifty species of mammals (including grizzly bear and cougar) and contains a number of jaw-dropping ancient pictograph galleries (rock art painted on cliff walls).
I met Dr. Ruby during the Stein Valley campaign period and was motivated by her fierce — and I mean FIERCE —determination to protect this last unspoiled valley in her people’s territory. I did many hikes in the Stein and fell in love with the place. Certainly the odds were stacked against the Stein being protected. However, Dr. Ruby’s leadership helped to galvanize thousands of non-indigenous people like myself to join the cause. After more than a decade of effort, the Stein Valley Nlaka’pamux Heritage Provincial Park was created. I’ve been lucky to spend some time with her over the years — including an entire afternoon in her village a few summers ago when she recounted for me some of her experiences in pursuing justice for residential school survivors.
I made this portrait of her in 2015 on the day she received her Honourary PhD from the University of Victoria in recognition of the achievements I have outlined here. I salute you Dr. Ruby for who you are and all that you’ve achieved in your life!
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