Judith Sayers, president of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council in Port Alberni and a member of the Hupacasath First Nation, has been named an officer to the Order of Canada.
Sayers is one of two people on Vancouver Island to be honoured with the Order of Canada; she was recognized for her contributions to advancing clean energy projects in her community and for her role as a champion of sustainable development in Indigenous communities. Chief Robert Joseph, of Alert Bay, B.C., hereditary chief of Gwawaenuk First Nation, was named an officer of the Order of Canada for his distinguished pan-Canadian leadership as a voice for reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.
For Sayers, who has been outspoken about many First Nations rights and resource issues, accepting the Order of Canada brought on a mix of emotions. “Our relationship with Canada is not always a good one,” she said. “It is an honour to be in a crowd of accomplished people. Am I really part of Canada, when we haven’t been able to resolve our issues with the government?
“At the same time, we’re trying to relationship build. I think back when Queens University offered me an honorary doctorate (in the early 1990s). To be an elder is the highest honour. I asked my elders whether I should accept this honour.” Their reply was yes, as it would give her credibility as she continued with her career.
Sayers said in the end, receiving the Order of Canada adds to her credibility as an Indigenous leader. “I’m hoping it’s going to open more doors for me that I can use to help advance the issues, our rights as First Nations people,” she said. “That maybe more people will listen to me and sit down and talk, negotiate, and settle with us.”
The Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council celebrated Sayers’ appointment on Friday. “The Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council celebrates the exceptional accomplishments Kekinusuqs Judith Sayers has made in her lifetime to her community and to her people,” NTC vice-president Andy Callicum said in a statement. “She is the epitome of what it means to be an exemplary leader and advocate for all Nuu-chah-nulth people.”
Sayers was elected chief of the Hupacasath First Nation for 14 years and chief negotiator for 15 years. She was elected to the NTC in September.
There were 125 people from across Canada honoured with the Order of Canada by Governor General Julie Payette on Dec. 29, including 10 others from Vancouver, Surrey and Burnaby in British Columbia.
Created in 1967, the Order of Canada, one of our country’s highest civilian honours, recognizes outstanding achievement, dedication to the community and service to the nation.
Sayers and Joseph were two of several Indigenous leaders who were appointed to the Order of Canada this time, and Sayers said that’s a good sign. “It’s recognition that Indigenous people play an important part of making Canada what it is today,” she said.
Indigenous people are making change in different ways. For Fred Sasakamoose of the Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, it was being the first Indigenous player in the National Hockey League. For Jeanette Corbiere Lavell of Wikwemikong, Ont., Sayers noted, it is how she has made advancements with women and women’s status.
“Letting these kinds of issues play a part in appointments helps to educate Canadians on what kind of work needs to be done, what kind of work has been done and where we go from here.”