Remembering a friend 

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As we make our way through the world other people change our lives. I was reminded how much a week ago after the death of a woman who became a dear friend.

I first met Diana Billy almost nine years ago at the Watershed Grill in Brackendale, south of Whistler. It sits on the dike overlooking the swift-flowing Squamish River, a river named after her people.

We were looking for a First Nations columnist for the Squamish Chief, the newspaper I was the editor of in 2006. Publisher Tim Shoults and I wanted to better represent the community we were covering and to tell interesting stories that would build connections. However many stories my reporters could write about the Squamish Nation, it was not the same thing as offering the space for a new voice and perspective to be heard.

Diana filled that need in abundance. We sat drinking coffee at the restaurant and she told me about her work with the traditional First Nations Big House located at the North Vancouver Outdoor School in the Paradise Valley.

There she was able teach children and teens from all over the Lower Mainland about traditional Squamish practices. My own son went and spent the night there several years ago, eating bannock and hearing stories, meeting Diana and her friends and family, watching bats fly above himself and his classmates into the darkness of the night. The experience will stay with him for life.

Diana was a novice writer, so we agreed that she could send over her words and I would edit them, send them back to her, and she could sign off on them.

What she provided for me were lyrical stories and insights into her world as a practitioner of traditional medicines. They were unique.

She would write specifically about the season, the forests and what grew there, the animals and how they were woven into the fabric of Squamish Nation life.

Her work was a great addition to the paper.

She also, inadvertently, eventually became my reason for moving on from the Chief.

One day she told me that the Squamish Nation was about to receive the remains of ancestors from the Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec. The remains had been taken from the region of Stanley Park in Vancouver, a traditional home of the Squamish. The lands there and in Kitsilano were opened to Europeans with the expansion of Vancouver in the last century and the Squamish were moved out to North Vancouver and to the Howe Sound area in and around the present-day town of Squamish.

When the Europeans came they took everything, including the dead of the indigenous people. The remains were moved near the nation's capital and there they stayed for a century.

I was aware this sort of terrible thing happened and I was happy for the Squamish Nation, who rediscovered the existence of the remains and lobbied hard to have them returned.

I was on hand as they reburied their ancestors on the Waiwakum Reserve on a snowy day with a sky dotted with eagles. Diana walked with me in the procession.

Apart from the emotional impact, it was a good story and also a scoop.

I wrote about it for the Chief and knew that it was an important regional story. I offered it to The Globe and Mail and they took it — and me along with it. I went on to work for them for the next four years.

But I stayed in Squamish and I stayed friends with Diana. She helped me with stories about the region; we talked about our lives and about family. She told me about the experience of residential school and about how ran away from it. She was expelled and sent back to Squamish, and likely missed the worst of the treatment, though what she told me about and allowed me to write about was bad enough.

She was part of the team that organized Remembrance Days services at Totem Hall on the Stawamus Reserve and I went several times to remember my own fallen family members and to take part in the feast that always came after.

She wove cedar in the traditional way and made me a Squamish Nation hat topped with abalone buttons and an eagle's feather that has a place of pride in my home.

Diana and I came from very different backgrounds and her friendship meant so much, and opened up the community I have been living in after years away from Canada.

The last time I saw her was before Christmas at Extra Foods. I had known that she hadn't been too well and got an update. She told me family news and I told her mine. It was a great conversation in the middle of the pharmacy department. And, thank goodness, when we finished we hugged each other. Then we went on our ways.

Thank you, Diana.

Chen kwen­mán­tumi, Tuctucnei.

(I hope I didn't mess that up, Diana. But I know you'd laugh at me in a good-natured way if I did.)


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