As a young girl, Carleen Thomas of səl̓ilw̓ətaʔɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nation would sit and listen intently to her grandfather talk and share knowledge.
Her late grandparents’ home, which she now lives in, is right on the Dollarton Highway. She recalls she and her grandfather would sit at the kitchen table and look out the front window and he'd point out the Burrard Inlet and, across the way, Capitol Hill and Burnaby Mountain to the east and the City of Vancouver to the west.
“My grandfather would say, 'They're [non-Indigenous] not going anywhere. We're not going anywhere; we have to find a way to coexist. It doesn't mean our ways are better, or their ways are better. We have to find a way to work together,’” Thomas said.
It’s a teaching she’s held onto tightly through her varied career across education, reconciliation, community development, and environmental and land protection. And, one she will continue to teach as her grandfather did.
This month, the 60-year-old was appointed chancellor of Emily Carr University of Art + Design. It’s the first time an Indigenous person has held the position at the school, which was founded in 1925.
“Honestly, my first reaction was, ‘Wow. But why me? What have I done for this honour?’” Thomas said.
“But I guess what really, you know, hit home for me was when the president said I would be an ambassador for the university. And I thought, ‘Oh, yeah, I can do that. I can be an ambassador … because that's what I've been doing my whole entire adult life is building relationships and making connections.”
Names of potential candidates for the position of chancellor were sought from all members of the Emily Carr community – including students, staff, faculty and alumni – before being reviewed by members of the alumni association board and the school's board of governors.
“After a thorough search process that engaged the Emily Carr community, we were proud to nominate Carleen Thomas as our new chancellor,” says Patrick Christie, president of the school's alumni association.
“I believe her appointment will encourage us to reflect on our responsibilities to this land and to each other and to foster transformation within the university.”
As chancellor, she’ll be the ceremonial head of the university and sit as a member of the board of governors and the senate, as well as acting as an ambassador. The chancellor also presides over major ceremonies, including convocation, and confers degrees to graduating students.
A love for education and learning
Thomas’ journey with education started from a young age. She had always enjoyed working with children and her first jobs were babysitting and working at a day camp. When she graduated high school, not feeling confident to go straight to university she did a program run by the University of British Columbia called the Native Indian Teacher Education Program.
From there she’d go on to work for the North Vancouver and Burnaby school districts as a district resource teacher in Indigenous education for around 10 years.
In that role, she said she felt like she was “the bridge that connected folks.” As her passion for education grew, she also completed a bachelor's degree in education at UBC.
On top of her new role as chancellor, Thomas is the special projects manager for the treaty, lands and resources department at the Tsleil-Waututh Nation. Before taking on that position, she served eight two-year terms as an elected council member for the Nation, in which she held the community development portfolio covering health and education and was part of the team that helped bring a community health clinic to the Burrard Inlet reserve.
She also currently sits on the Indigenous Advisory and Monitoring Committee, a federal advisory committee made up of 13 Indigenous and six senior federal representatives that provides advice to regulators and monitors the Trans Mountain expansion project and existing pipeline.
'We are Tsleil-Waututh and we are still here'
Her connection with Emily Carr University grew through presenting classes over the years on the history of the Tsleil-Waututh people.
“We lovingly call it TWN 101,” she said. “It's like a backgrounder, a history, a story of the Tsleil-Waututh people, mostly, from the perspective of our treaty, lands and resources department. My presentation speaks mostly about our connection to the land and waters and the work we do to protect them.”
She said it was important to understand and realize that Indigenous oral history is just as important or as informative, as history that's written in the books.
Thomas touched on the Nation’s history and how her people had endured a lot, from waves of smallpox decimating their populations to the rules enforced on them by colonizers.
“We survived all that,” she said. “I think what I most want our next generation to know is that we're still here as Tsleil-Waututh people.
“When I was a kid growing up, I kind of felt ashamed, because I didn't know my culture. And as my grandparents healed and as my parents healed, I've come to understand that it's not our fault that we don't know some things.
“But what we do know is that we are Tsleil-Waututh, we are people of the inlet and we are still here.”
When it comes to others teaching Indigenous history, she encouraged teachers to get to know the First Nations in their area and to build relationships in a respectful way.
“It's all about relationships, and that's what my parents always taught,” Thomas said.
“It's really important to know people in order to work with people.”
Excited to build new relationships
As for Thomas, she said she was honoured to be able to continue building her own new connections in her role at Emily Carr University.
“I feel, from our teachings, artists are revered in our communities,” she explained. “In our culture we're taught that they connect this human world to the spirit world. They’re our conduit, they’re our bridge, they’re our connection.
“I have a high regard for artists, and I'm really excited. I don't know what I bring, honestly. But I'm willing to roll up my sleeves and work with people and build those important relationships.”
While Thomas may not be quite convinced on why she was chosen for the position, the university thinks otherwise.
"Carleen has demonstrated extraordinary leadership through her decades of service to the Tsleil-Waututh Nation,” said Dr. Gillian Siddall, Emily Carr's president and vice-chancellor.
“We’re grateful to have someone with her knowledge and expertise join Emily Carr University, especially as we work to decolonize and Indigenize our campus and meaningfully engage with the host nations on whose land we work and study."
Thomas will be formally installed as chancellor at a ceremony this fall and will initially serve a three-year term, which can then be renewed for another three years.
Elisia Seeber is the North Shore News’ Indigenous and civic affairs reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.