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People of SFU: Meet Gary George, Officer for Community Relations, Office for Aboriginal Peoples
Gary George has lived and worked in the Lower Mainland at Simon Fraser University’s Burnaby campus for over a decade. Over the years, he has witnessed the growth and expansion of the Indigenous Student Centre (ISC) at SFU and the creation of the Office for Aboriginal Peoples (OAP) in 2009.
George, who is from Telkwa in Northern B.C. and a member of the Wet'suwet'en Nation (sometimes spelled Wit'suwit'en), is also an SFU alumnus with a Professional Development Program Certificate and a Master of Education. As the OAP's Officer for Community Relations, he works with the OAP team—director Ron Johnston and office assistant Karen Matthews—to help advance key priorities and initiatives set out in the Aboriginal Strategic Plan and break ground on new ones. This included supporting the 2017 SFU Aboriginal Reconciliation Council’s recommendations on how the university can best promote reconciliation within the SFU community, as embodied in the Walk this Path with Us report.
He notes that the ongoing expansion in services and supports for Indigenous students at SFU over the years has already helped many more reach their postsecondary education goals.
“When I first started working at SFU the annual Honouring Feast for Indigenous graduates may have had 15-20 attendees, but I’ve seen the event attendance grow to over 50 graduates in recent years,” he says.
SFU continues to expand supports for Indigenous students. The ISC space is currently being renovated and further expanded at SFU Burnaby campus, and the First Peoples’ Gathering House, which will provide a culturally appropriate space for events such as the Honouring Feast, is expected to be completed in fall 2023.
Indigenous community outreach programs
George is involved in a number of outreach initiatives to support the Indigenous community and reconciliation. He served on and helped name the Surrey Urban Indigenous Leadership Committee, which is known as SUILC for short—pronounced as “swill-see.” SUILC began in 2015 and advocates on social innovation issues for the 13,000+ Indigenous people living in Surrey, addressing issues such as racism and child poverty.
George also created and is the editor of the OAP’s "Syetsem" bi-weekly online newsletter featuring Indigenous-related stories, events, activities and information. "Syetsem" is a Coast Salish term which refers to the sharing of news, reports, and recent history.
Through his work with the OAP, George has attended language revitalization conferences, prepared drum cafes and led drum-making workshops.
George is part of the New Westminster Schools Aboriginal Education Advisory Committee, which helps provide culturally appropriate support for Indigenous youth at the elementary, middle and high school level. He regularly attends various webinars related to matters such as Indigenous language reawakening and racism and discrimination. A positive message recently shared at a Saskatchewan language conference stressed that it is better to use positive terms like ‘reawakening’ rather than ‘endangered,’ ‘extinct’ or ‘loss’ when referring to the state of Indigenous languages in 2021.
As another form of community outreach, George also gives cross cultural awareness presentations to student facilitators with the Science Alive programs. The presentations are designed “to help them gain a better understanding of Indigenous peoples and issues— preparing them for what to expect when they arrive in these remote communities.”
For example, he says something simple that people may not expect is that many remote Indigenous communities are located in areas with little or no internet or cellphone coverage, which can be an unexpected challenge for those who are unfamiliar with the area. This is changing with the recent announcement by the B.C. Government for improved and expanded province-wide cell phone and high-speed internet access.
George enjoys hiking, being "out on the Yinta" (the Wet'suwet'en term for territories) and was raised in “one of the nicest places in B.C.” He has hosted guided forest walks for SFU staff and students where he shares Indigenous stories, history and traditional knowledge—creating understanding both within and outside the walls of the classroom.