In the past few decades, things have been improving for Indigenous people in Canada.
Acknowledgment and awareness have been heightened. Indigenous history and culture have been moved into the mainstream media. These changes were evident in our region on June 21 with four large public events held on National Indigenous People’s Day.
Even me having this platform to write and share Indigenous stories shows a step in the right direction.
We should celebrate all of these improvements, and it’s also important to recognize the people who have devoted their lives to helping make these changes possible.
This week was Nella Nelson’s last week in her office before her retirement from the Victoria School District. For nearly 40 years, Nella worked for the district, 10 years teaching and 29 years as the district administrator for Aboriginal education.
“When I started in 1979, three out of every 100 native Indian students would graduate,” said Nella, adding that back then, native Indian was the term used. “Last year, 63 out of 100 Aboriginal students graduated. It took us 40 years to get the grad rate there.”
Nella worked hard to incorporate a feeling of belonging, culture and accurate history into the education programs.
“I’ve always said Aboriginal education is more than beads and bannock,” she said. Nella worked with a team creating the first high school B.C. First Nations studies course and writing the exam.
“We worked hard to ensure it was as rigorous as the Social Studies 12 course,” Nella said.
Throughout Nella’s career, she has strived to bring education and culture to Indigenous youth. Both were instilled in her by her parents, George and Ruth Cook.
“They always told us to get an education and to earn degrees,” said Nella.
When Alex Nelson, asked for permission to marry Nella, her parents said they would sign the papers, as long as Alex ensured she finished her degree.
Nella was 18 years old, and the legal age to wed was 19.
Alex was also pursuing a degree at University of Victoria.
“My dad would tell us kids: ‘You boys go and get a white man’s education and when you get the chance, you teach them who you are,’ ” he said.
When the Nelsons were at UVic, there were only 10 Indigenous students that they knew of. They spoke with me about the challenges of being such a minority at the time.
One of their professors carved out a classroom space for the Indigenous students to hang out in together and hosted potlucks. Nella said it was from these experiences that she worked hard to provide similar spaces for the students in the Greater Victoria School District.
The Nelsons passed on their passion for education to as many youths as they could. Shortly after they married, they welcomed five teenagers from Alert Bay and Kingcome Village into their home, so the young people could attend school in Victoria. Over the years, the Nelsons cared for 30 children from Alert Bay and Kingcome Village and helped them receive an education.
Every child who stayed in their home also played soccer with them.
In May, Alex was inducted in the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame for his work with the North American Indigenous Games and the Aboriginal Sports and Recreation Association of B.C. Alex has strived to provide access to sports to Indigenous youth across the province and country.
Alex attended the residential school in Alert Bay from Grade 3 to Grade 8. It was during his childhood years in residential school that he found a passion for sport, specifically soccer.
“Soccer played a critical role for me in Alert Bay. Soccer wasn’t just a game, it was freedom,” Alex said.
In 1989, Alex and Nella lost their son to suicide. “The day he took his life was the day ASRA was founded. I became determined to use sports and recreation as a preventative measure to suicide,” Alex said. “I am a survivor of our son’s suicide.”
For the next 18 years, the Nelsons founded and hosted a group of families who would meet each week for a talking circle. They have worked hard to bring healing to themselves and others.
Nella and Alex have both made such an impact on our region individually and as a couple. They are leaders within the Indigenous community and role models for us all.
Charla Huber works in communications and Indigenous relations for M’akola Group of Societies.