"Learn to walk with your head up and smile": a Conversation with Elder Margaret George

Thu, 17 Jun 2021

Kim Regala
Communications & Events Coordinator, SFU Public Square

“Pride. Honour. Respect. Trust. Courage. Silliness—at times.” When asked what it means to be working with SFU, these were the words that first came to mind for Elder Margaret George of the Skawahlook First Nation.

For 21 years, Elder Margaret has worked with SFU’s Indigenous Student Centre as part of the Elders Program. She offers support and mentorship to students, provides guidance in traditional ceremonies and events, and participates in various interviews, guest lectures, and committees.  

Though I have only known Elder Margaret for a short amount of time, she has opened countless events, panels and workshops for SFU Public Square over the years, where she offers short prayers and wisdom so that we may begin in the right way.

However, in the few hours that I spent chatting with her for this piece, I soon came to realize that her impact on SFU students, the SFU community and beyond was much too large to capture in just a few paragraphs.

A few months before a coordinator reached out to her about the Elders Program, Elder Margaret had just graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in anthropology and English. “There were only six of us who were Native in these programs,” she shared. “We were sort of found and pushed aside, and we had to struggle for five years without support.”

So, when asked by SFU’s Indigenous Student Centre during her interview if she would be comfortable working with students, her answer would come as no surprise.

“Was I comfortable as a student [at my university]? No. But did I understand what the students needed? Yes. They needed somebody who didn’t speak to any of their concerns but simply listened.”

It’s not difficult to recognize that Elder Margaret cares deeply for the wellbeing of students. Even when the Elders Program was put on pause for two years, she continued to meet with students at the cafeteria and in the hallways. It was important for her that students always felt empowered as soon as they entered the classroom.

“Learn to walk with your head up and smile,” she would tell them. “Let people know that this classroom is yours.”

She also stressed the importance of having a clear time management and wellness program—whether that’s taking the time to go for a walk or picking up a hobby to enjoy outside of school.  

Of the many pieces of advice that she shared with me, one in particular stood out.

“I always tell [students] there's a lot of trees around SFU. When you’re frustrated, find a tree. Be its companion, sit under the tree and just relax.” (I especially took this to heart while writing this article, as I sit here today beside a tree I’ve befriended near SFU’s reflecting pond.)

At this point during the interview, I had carried a smile on my face throughout our conversation that I knew would stay with me for the rest of the day. I continued to listen as she shared more of her most treasured memories from her career.

She recalled stories of working at clinics in the Downtown Eastside to assist those in need of medical attention and counselling support; of volunteering and being a founding Board member at the Native Education College; and of being awarded the 2017 Gertie Guerin Visionary Award for her incredible contributions towards empowering Indigenous people. She even met with the award’s namesake, Musqueam chief Gertrude Guerin herself.

Of her fondest memories at SFU, she recalled meeting former SFU president Andrew Petter for the first time to welcome him to the university. Another was providing the welcome for SFU’s 50th anniversary.

“That was a very emotional one: to have been interviewed for the Elders Program, and 21 years later, I’m still hanging around.”

Nowadays, in light of the pandemic, Elder Margaret spends most of her time crocheting, reading a good book, and going outside for brief walks to exercise.

But with COVID-19 restrictions gradually lifting and with her second vaccine soon coming along, she’s looking forward to slowly getting back into socializing, continuing a wellness program of walking outside, and finally getting to see familiar faces in the SFU family.

“I’m excited to just sit down with students again and listen to them.”