It was a double win for the Tseshaht First Nation at the Port Alberni Chamber of Commerce Community Excellence Awards.
Tseshaht tribe member Irene Robinson was named Port Alberni’s citizen of the year. And the tribe also won the chamber’s environmental award at the chamber’s ceremony and dinner, which was attended by more than 100 people, on April 11.
The levity of the win hadn’t sunk in yet, Robinson said. “This is surreal and feels like it isn’t happening – it hasn’t sunk in yet,” Robinson said.
Held annually, the awards honour those in the community who go above and beyond, exceed expectation, and prove to be excellent at what they do.
Robinson was up against District Parents Advisory Committee president Melody Burton, who helps coordinate the breakfast program at Alberni District Secondary School.
The win was a treat to Robinson, but was also a treat to event goers as she and her mother and two sisters sang and danced to the Tseshaht victory song as soon as her name was read out.
“This blows me away and wasn’t something I was expecting,” Robinson said in her speech.
Chamber vice president Peter Weinold used the phrase ‘you are what you learn’ when describing Robinson, who was clear about what she learned and from who.
“Jackie Adams from Ahousaht gave me the best advice years ago when she said ‘go back to school,’” said Robinson, who earned a BA in Aboriginal Studies from Malaspina University College (now VIU), and is now the literacy coordinator for the Port Alberni Friendship Centre.
But she had other teachers as well. “I want to recognize my ancestors, who passed down language and teachings in pretty dark time when it wasn’t safe to do so,” she said.
Robinson said she also drew inspiration from her tribe’s elderly ladies, whose names she rattles off: Jessie Gallic, Wiinuk, Bessie Dick, Mabel Taylor, Margaret Shewish and Mabel Yukom.
“They taught us how to dance and showed us how beautiful our culture was during a time when it wasn’t being recognized, and was even being shamed,” Robinson said.
The tide is beginning to turn, Robinson said. “As our people get stronger and more people begin listening to us it’s changing.”
The Tseshaht were the lone nominee in chamber’s environmental award, which tribe councillor Erma Robinson accepted. The tribe was nominated for the expansion of its market, as well as its clean up program, which includes elders yards and nets and boats along the Somass River.
In the chamber’s other awards, Flandangles won in the small business category, while Western Forest Products took large business honours.
Entrepreneur of the year went to Handy Andy’s and the customer service award to Rick Paul from Double R Meats.
McLean Mill beat out Lady Rose Marine Services for the tourism business award.
RCMP Const. Boyd Pearson earned volunteer of the year honours for his efforts in the 2011 Pulling Together Canoe Journey.
The Port Alberni Toy Run won the Child and Family Friendly business award. The toy run has raised more than $1 million given thousands of toys for local children’s programs and charities since 1984, association president David Wiwchar said.
In the youth of the year category, the ADSS Civics 11 class, girls senior basketball team, wrestler Nolan Bodnar and AV Bulldogs player Lars Hepsp all won recognition.
The chamber also presented its special recognition award to Port Alberni residents Bob Wagenvoort and Manfred Barron for their volunteer work at Literacy Alberni.
Wagenvoort and Barron volunteer up to 60 hours of their time per week refurbishing old computers, some 90 of which have already benefited Alberni families living on low incomes.