In 1969, Cliff Sampare was a teenager from a small town in northern B.C. when he made the long trip south to Cloverdale to attend high school.
He was determined to get a better education than he was getting at home, and was discouraged by the overt racism and discrimination he experienced in the school system there.
A member of the Gitxsan Nation in Hazelton, Sampare enrolled at Lord Tweedsmuir Secondary, but he didn’t exactly look forward to it, according to the April edition of Tweedsmuir Nation, a newsletter put together by aboriginal enhancement worker Tansley Courtenay and team.
On April 15, the Hereditary Chief of the Gitxsan Nation returned to his former high school to speak with students in the English First Peoples class. It was nearly 50 years after he first sat in his first classes at Lord Tweedsmuir.
He wore traditional regalia – a red and black button blanket, and cedar bark headdress.
Today, Sampare is a director with the Sustainable Development Gitxsan Chiefs’ Office.
It seems counter-intuitive, but a chance to attend high school in the city was life-altering.
He told the 2016 class when he came to Surrey, he was closed and angry. He faced discrimination in his home community, and wasn’t open to believing aboriginal and non-aboriginal people could have relationships that were free of fear and prejudice.
He wasn’t expecting the reception he got in Cloverdale.
“When I came to Tweedsmuir, people were nice. Principals were nice,” he told the students. “They opened their arms to me, and this was totally different from being shunned in my own community.”
He says people like Bill Mercer, Mark Eklund and Torin Domay invited him into their homes, and became his friends.
Retired vice principal Rick Hugh attended Lord Tweedsmuir when Sampare was there, and remembers him as someone who “definitely left his mark on the school.”
“He was very involved in many aspects of student life,” Hugh said.
In his final year of high school, Sampare carved a traditional pole, calling on some of his First Nations friends – like Boyd Woods (Squamish) and Cameron Wallace (Nisga’a) – to help him at the pole raising ceremony.
It took place in the gym, in front of the entire student body, and the pole stood in the school foyer for decades. “When I carved that pole, that was my gift to Lord Tweedsmuir to show my appreciation for opening me up,” he said.
He graduated in 1971. Sampare has witnessed a lot of changes since then, both at home and in the wider community.
The biggest lesson he learned at Lord Tweedsmuir was, “We can live together,” he said.
Penny Turpin, host teacher of Sampare’s visit, says First Nations students were unrecognized at best and shunned at worst at schools in the 1970s.
She says Sampare’s pole and the photos in the school yearbook – where he is described as an enthusiastic and free spirit – documenting the pole-raising ceremony are proof that LTS broke the mould.
– With files, Tansley Courtenay, SD36