Ruby Peter receives honorary degree for language revitalization


Nearly five decades ago, sti’tum’at Ruby Peter of the Quamichan First Nation made a daily trip from Duncan, driving north to Nanaimo to collect a passenger, and then onto the University of Victoria.

She was among six Hul’q’umi’num’ educators who made the journey together for several months to attend classes at UVic, the first collaboration of its kind in North America. Their mission: to develop Indigenous language teaching training and help pass on their language to younger generations.

Sti’tum’at received UVic’s highest accolade—an honorary Doctor of Laws (LLD)—at the Faculty of Humanities’ spring convocation on June 10, recognizing her dedication to documenting, teaching and revitalizing the Hul'q'umi'num' language.

She reflected on this time at a special ceremony at First Peoples House organized by the Department of Linguistics, which nominated sti’tum’at for the degree.

“You brought my life back to 1973, thinking about all we used to do,” sti’tum’at told the audience, which included family, friends, community members and UVic colleagues.

She recalled that her car at the time had a broken indicator, which meant one of the passengers had to take on that responsibility.

“‘Violet, I’m going to turn left, stick your hand out and signal,’” she recounted with a laugh. “We enjoyed each other’s company. We supported one another. It was a beautiful time.”

Associate Professors Suzanne Urbanczyk and Sonya Bird, from the Department of Linguistics, nominated sti’tum’at for the award. Urbanczyk said sti’tum’at and her three sisters approached UVic in 1970 to develop Indigenous language teacher training. They were concerned about the shift in language use from Hul’q’umi’num’ to English in their community. Their request compelled faculty members from education and linguistics to develop a plan for creating Indigenous language programing at UVic.

“The amount of dedication and determination these young Hul’q’umi’num’ educators/mothers and their supporters showed was astounding,” Bird says.

Two ground-breaking diplomas, launched at UVic in the 1970s, emerged from the initial collaboration, helping establish UVic as a leader in community-based language revitalization programing.

“The untold part of UVic’s history in Indigenous language revitalization is that it all began with sti’tum’at approaching UVic to provide training to her and her generation of language speakers,” Urbanczyk says.

Since completing her diploma, sti’tum’at has taught Hul’q’umi’num’ in numerous settings, from elementary school to college to university. She has served as an in-class elder, translator, researcher and language consultant. Sti’tum’at’s research resulted in the co-authored Cowichan Dictionary, still considered the most extensive dictionary of the Cowichan dialect of Hul’q’umi’num’ 25 years after its initial publication.

Faculty members from the Department of Linguistics lauded sti’tum’at at the ceremony for her perseverance, compassion and generosity. They presented sti’tum’at with a pendant of a thunderbird, a symbol of power, protection and strength.

Acting Humanities Dean Lisa Surridge said sti’tum’at had “reach,” which Surridge described as when someone extends beyond themselves to advance a whole community.

“You showed yourself to be a navigator (literally and metaphorically) when you climbed into a car to lead your group of language teachers down the road to UVic to form a partnership in the teaching and study of Indigenous languages,” she said.

“You were an innovator in imagining the very concept of language revitalization.”

A humbled sti’tum’at thanked her supporters.

“I thank you all for the recognition and giving me this precious gift.”

Sti’tum’at had one more ceremony to attend: Simon Fraser University awarded her an honorary degree at their convocation during the same week.