Vivian ChuiOmineca Express
A stroll in the hallways of Vanderhoof’s hospital will now give visitors and staff alike the opportunity to learn, if not remember, the long-standing contributions of two notable local First Nation elders in healing.
To an audience of more than 50 community members and family, the portraits of Mary John and Sophie Thomas were ceremoniously hung in the main hallway of St. John Hospital last Friday.
As part of the hospital’s Hallways of Healing project to honour past physicians, the two Saik’uz elders’ portraits were hung first not only to acknowledge the hospital’s location on traditional Saik’uz territory, but also to recognize their contribution to the community, as well as their cultural impact on both aboriginal and non-aboriginal health care, said April Hughes, Northern Health’s Health Services Administrator for the Omineca District.
“They are traditional healers, incredible role models for the entire community — First Nations and non-First Nations — [in regards to] compassion around healing and caring for the environment, caring for each other, the land, the animals,” Hughes said. “They are emblematic of all aspects of healing and compassion.”
She added, “it’s a visual reminder to staff, and also a visual welcome to our First Nations communities to come into the facilities as well.”
Sophie Thomas: healer
With her wealth of knowledge in medicinal plants and traditional healing, Thomas had received the Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal in 2010 for her advocacy and education work in aboriginal culture.
In Plants and Medicines of Sophie Thomas, a copy of which now accompanies her portrait in St. John Hospital, Thomas’ respect for the environment permeated through her rules in plant collection, as she advises readers to treat the environment with respect, to not waste any part of a plant, and to be careful in taking — “do not take more than you can use.”
The publication was a result of Thomas’ wish to make her knowledge of medicinal plants and traditional aboriginal medicines to all, said Jane Young, who prepared the book with fellow UNBC professor Alex Hawley when the Saik’uz First Nation approached the university for the project in 1997.
“The book is only a small part of Sophie’s vast knowledge,” Young said. “She wanted it written with science-based botanical information, and be used for teaching in both aboriginal and non-aboriginal contexts — a marriage of traditional and Western science knowledge.”
Young recalled Thomas’s mantra, “If we look after our Earth, it will look after us. If you destroy it, you’ll destroy yourself.”
Mary John: community leader
A recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubillee Medal in 2002, the Order of Canada in 1997, and Vanderhoof’s Citizen of the Year in 1978, John had first started work at the hospital as a janitor before eventually becoming a board member, as well as the institution’s first liaison with First Nation communities in the area, Hughes said.
“They saw in her humanity and her ability for service and care,” she said.
In addition to the Vanderhoof Public Library’s Mary John Collection of 800 books on a broad range of First Nations topics – created after John’s death in 2004 — John’s legacy is also conveyed through her memoir Stoney Creek Woman.
An autobiography of John’s life struggles in racism, sickness, and poverty to become a leader in the community, the publication now hangs by her formal portrait in the hospital.
John had also worked to preserve the Saik’uz language through teaching local school classes and creating a dictionary with the assistance of other Saik’uz elders, said John’s granddaughter Gladys Michell.
“She was my best friend,” Michell added. “Her memory keeps going on.”
Melanie Lebatch, one of John’s granddaughters, echoed the sentiment of Saik’uz First Nation Chief Stanley Thomas at his address to the audience in the ceremony — that the hanging of the portraits is fitting yet overdue.
“I really like what Stan’s said, how it would have been nice when that had happened when they were walking the earth,” Lebatch said. “But it’s always good to do it.”
Having just graduated from training as a nurse, Lebatch commented on the disparity in Canada between the health of aboriginal and non-aboriginal people.
“Even in our community, there are many stories of health disparities for aboriginals,” she said, as she expressed her appreciation for Hughes’ words on everyone being welcome at the hospital.
“Even though people say that, a lot of people don’t feel that,” Lebatch added. “This is one of the stepping stones in the right way.”