Lydia Hwitsum

Lydia Hwitsum
Lydia Hwitsum

Category: Indigenous Community Alumni Awards

Name: Lydia Hwitsum

UVic degrees and year: Law degree in 1997, Certificate of Administration of Aboriginal Governments in 1993; and a Diploma in Public Sector Management in 1993

Current hometown: Quamichan Village in Cowichan          

Birthplace: Quamichan Village

Lydia Hwitsum was born in her grandmother’s house in the Quamichan Village. She was the youngest in her family, the only girl, and had a mother who taught her language, culture and teachings that guide her today.

Hwitsum has more than 20 years of experience in leadership positions in Indigenous governance in British Columbia and Canada. She served several terms as chief of the Cowichan Tribes—and has just been elected for another (after the nomination process closed for these awards).

One of her greatest career accomplishments was helping to build a governance structure to transfer control of health from the federal government to BC First Nations authorities. Hwitsum was elected to the BC First Nations Summit executive, served on the board of directors of the BC Assembly of First Nations, and chaired the First Nations Health Authority. She has two grown children and four grandchildren.

Q. What was the moment you realized your career calling?

LH: “I think maybe there’s always been a sense of responsibility to community. My mom was a very hardworking woman. She served the community in a cultural capacity her whole life. I was watching her help and reach out—those are some of the underpinnings, for sure.”


Q. What is a favourite book you read in the last five years?

LH: Luschiim’s Plants: Traditional Indigenous Foods, Materials and Medicines by Luschiim Arvid Charlie and UVic’s Nancy J. Turner


Q. What is a movie or television show that always makes you laugh?

LH: “My mom and I used to watch The Golden Girls… I just saw it came back on Netlix, and I’ve been watching it and laughing out loud. It’s kind of funny because I think I’m the age of those women now.”


Q. What is your advice to younger people entering your line of work or who feel lost or confused about their future?

LH: “Everybody has certain unique skills and gifts. I would encourage them to find what that is and find a career that leans on those strengths. My life’s work has been dedicated really to Indigenous rights and human rights, and so to think about ‘What is your capacity to help or contribute to a just society?’”


Q. What’s a part of your daily routine that you can’t do without? Do you have a mantra that you can share?

Hwitsum tries to start the day from a place of gratitude. When she gets up, as her feet hit the floor, she says “thank you” and Huy ch q'u. “It’s a simple thing. But you know life pushes back so hard, to be able to start the day with a place of gratitude is pretty powerful,” she says.

Her mantra is simple. If she’s starting a trip or a journey, she looks to the universe and the ancestors and says: “Open and clear and only goodness.”


Q. How did UVic, or your faculty specifically, shape you as a person? What is the best advice a mentor has given you?

Law school was challenging in the 1990s, she recalls. She says she almost quit law school because she couldn’t get time away from class to attend a naming ceremony for her children. Hwitsum appealed to the dean, who allowed her the time to attend the ceremony. “That was an early recognition that the work we do in ceremony is actually Indigenous law. This is how we pass rightful names and masks,” she says.


Q. What do you hope you and your work will ultimately contribute toward a better future for people and the planet?

LH: “I’m about honouring and building relationships. I think in order to get anything accomplished, we have to look at the human side of what we’re trying to do….The systems that we have in place are not necessarily the epitome of systems, especially when we think about what we’re doing to Mother Earth, when we think about the human-rights framework and when we think about sustainability…I’m talking about the way the economy works, I’m talking about the way people think of Indigenous people, I want to contribute on all those levels and I think that will make a difference for not only my grandchildren as Indigenous young people but for British Columbians.”


For the full list of 2022 Distinguished Alumni Award recipients, click here.