This fall Dawn Wilson graduated from UBC’s NITEP (Indigenous Teacher Education Program) along with six other Heiltsuk women; Ayla Brown, Leandrea Carpenter, Angie Peers, Cheryl Lawson Burdick, and Amanda Reid. She is both Nuxalk and Heiltsuk by birth, but Dawn was raised in Bella Bella and has spent her life serving the Heiltsuk community.
“I was born in Bella Coola but moved to Bella Bella and raised Heiltsuk since I was three. I have been blessed and honoured to be raised in such a beautiful Nation,” she shared. “I am also very proud to be Nuxalk and to come from such a huge family on both sides. My mother is Yvonne Wilson (nee Schooner) Nuxalk and my father is Willard Wilson from Bella Bella (Heiltsuk Nation). My mother is the daughter of Gertrude (Gertie) Hans and the late Garnet Schooner.”
Dawn spent a portion of her early life in the care of her aunt and uncle, Ruth and Johnny Moody, before moving permanently to Bella Bella. It was there that her father instilled in her his famous work ethic. Although she had her firstborn at just 18 years old, her father did not give up on her, nor did he let her give up.
“I did things backwards so to speak, having a son so young. I don’t regret it, he is an amazing person, but I wish I had taken my parents direction earlier!” she recalled. “Being the oldest my Dad always had high expectations of me and literally forced me to school. He would never give up on me and would not let me sleep in or miss school, I look back now and thank him for that.”
Dawn said her father was the hardest working man she knew, knocking on her door “100 times to get her out of bed,” working long hours and playing in the orchestra for all community services.
“I always wanted to be a lawyer. That was my dream, and I always knew in the back of my mind I would some day get a degree and attend university,” Dawn said. “It just took me 20 years and someone else seeing something in me that I did not see or believe.”
Dawn had what she describes as a “colourful” work history, holding jobs within the Heiltsuk Tribal Council, R.W. Large Memorial Hospital, where she was promoted to CEO, and the Halika’as Heiltsuk Health Centre.
She was approached by the Heiltsuk College and Field Centre Coordinator to sign up for the NITEP program as it was a joint venture between Heiltsuk College and UBC; essentially a satellite school run on reserve for three years.
“I had no intention of teaching but I applied to the program in hopes to complete the three years and maybe transfer, but I fell in love with the program and decided to continue,” she explained. “My belief is that teaching and education are skills you can apply anywhere, and the bottom line is that I wanted a career not a job, and I wanted to be able to support my family.”
Dawn said that the experience of completing the program (she graduated from the University of British Columbia with a Bachelor of Education with an Indigenous specialty) was both revealing and frustrating.
“UBC is a leader in Indigenous education, and all the teacher candidates have to take an Indigenous course,” Dawn explained. “It was so annoying at times to relearn things and that you have literally lived. I found it amusing to learn that some of my colleagues had no clue who we are as First Nations.
“I think having our perspectives in those classes helped to show who we really are. Stereotypes, racism, and stigma are real, and at times I saw this first hand, but my overall experience was quite positive.”
Having been raised Heiltsuk but also identifying as Nuxalk, Dawn said the experience of going through the program enabled her to have a good look at herself while at the same time connect to the past experiences of Indigenous peoples.
“All my life I have struggled with my identity: am I Heiltsuk or Nuxalk and where do I belong?” she said. “The university and NITEP experience gave me an opportunity to really look at myself. My cousin Sharon Wilson (also a teacher) always said to me her educational journey has been a healing journey, and that I now understand. It was hard learning about our past and the experiences of our First Nations people.”
Dawn expressed that, for her, the program delved much deeper than she expected. It enabled her to explore and learn about the past experiences of her people.
“In order for us to reconcile we must be able to walk in both worlds and start to heal. Those who want reconciliation also need to walk beside us and stop telling us what we need to do. We need to take leadership roles in our Nations and reclaim who we are and be proud of that,” she explained. “I am proud to be Nuxalk and Heiltsuk and I know who I am because of this experience.”
On graduation day her family, including her three young daughters, joined Dawn at UBC’s Chan Centre and it was an experience she won’t soon forget.
“To see my three younger daughters in the stand waving at me was so awesome. All I could think about was I hope I have inspired them, and if I have my job is done!” she said. “We need to make education a priority for our children, and push them to complete. Our children are our future, and we must invest in them.”