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Reclaiming History. An Interview with Chief Rhonda Larrabee

Chief Rhonda Larrabee led the Qayqayt First Nation from the brink of extinction.

When Rhonda Larrabee received her status card as a member of the Qayqayt First Nation in 1994, she became the first documented member of the New Westminster Indian Band, taking the community off the Inactive General List of Reserves. She would soon learn the significance of that. “My phone started ringing non-stop,” Larrabee recounts. Many of the First Nations leaders who got in touch encouraged her to carry on the legacy of her lost community. So she did, educating herself about her history and that of the Qayqayt. Today, Larrabee is the chief of her nation.

“Growing up my mom told me she was of Chinese and French descent,” she remembers. It wasn’t until she was in her mid-20s while trying to build her family tree that Larrabee learned the truth about her heritage. “My mom said: ‘I’ll tell you once but never ask again and never talk about it again.’” Chief Larrabee’s mother told her that day about her experience in residential school and the loss of her family. Her mother also spoke of her decision to change her appearance to appear less Indigenous. After her mother passed away, Chief Larrabee was determined to learn more about her mother’s history and to honour her memory.

Under Chief Larrabee’s leadership, the Qayqayt community has grown to almost 100 documented members. The First Nation has reclaimed its fishing rights and is currently working to re-establish a reserve. A claim for a land base was filed in 2012 and negotiations with the government have been ongoing since 2015. “My mom always dreamt to own a home and have a piece of land she could call hers. She always said: ‘It’s the land that’s important.’” Chief Larrabee takes pride in the recognition the Qayqayt are receiving, thanks to her work. In 2014, a school in New Westminster was named after her nation: the École Qayqayt Elementary School, built on the site of the former St. Mary’s Hospital. “That was a big accomplishment for me,” says Larrabee. “That was the hospital where my mother was born and where my grandparents and great uncles and aunts passed away.”

Today, Chief Larrabee dedicates herself full-time to creating awareness of Indigenous history and the critical need for reconciliation. “What we need is for Canadians not only to learn but to understand what happened to our community. How this molded their lives and made Indigenous people feel ashamed, unloved and unwanted.” As a now-retired unionized worker, she says labour has an important responsibility in the reconciliation process. “We need to provide reconciliation training, provide jobs to Indigenous people and have employers understand Indigenous culture,” she says, adding that cultural awareness is still
lacking in the workplace. “How many Aboriginal workers would like to spend time with their
families on Aboriginal Day or when we have the salmon festival or spiritual ceremonies, but are still mandated to be at work?”

At UFCW 1518, Chief Larrabee has become a well- known figure, providing a traditional welcome to the Qayqayt territory at union meetings and events. She is grateful for the platform and acknowledgement the union has provided, including last year’s renaming of the Members Hall to Qayqayt Hall. “It’s been quite a journey to bring this awareness to New West,” says Chief Larrabee. “I went to Safeway the other day and a woman, member of this union, looked at me and said: ‘Are you coming to our union meeting this week?’ People recognize me now. It’s great that we are finally being seen.”