June Johnson is an Indigenous Elder who is making a difference for young people in Campbell River.
A member of the We Wai Kai First Nation from Cape Mudge, she’s an Elder-in-residence at North Island College, where she teaches language and culture.
“I’ve been doing language for I think more than 10 years now for the community,” she said. “It’s about bringing back culture to our communities and anyone who wants to learn, we’re inclusive. It doesn’t matter where you’re from.”
Participants include many First Nations foster children who live with non-Indigenous parents, she said.
She teaches them about culture and protocol of the Big House, so they’re familiar with it when they attend a potlatch. She also teaches dances, she said.
Children as young as two years old take part in the cultural activities, along with teenagers, young adults and Elders.
She teaches Likwala-Kwakwala language, and a semester was just wrapping in mid-April, when Johnson spoke about her work in an interview.
She’s known as someone who doesn’t discriminate by band or whether or not someone is Indigenous – she feels that we are all one.
“Half of our class is non-Indigenous, and they’re doing awesome,” she said. “It’s really important for people to learn about our peoples and our territory. We all live together in the community, and it’s nice for everyone to learn.”
Johnson also teaches doctors and nurses about traditional plants and medicines, holding workshops at North Island College and putting in a Healing Garden of indigenous plants at the hospital.
“The forest was always our pharmacy for hundreds of years,” she said.
She’s also well-known for giving to many causes, and baking for family and friends. It’s something that she considers an everyday role.
At the time of the interview, she was fundraising for the Paddle to Lummi, a celebration of the Coast Salish people and culture. Some 100 canoes are expected to travel the traditional highways to Lummi Nation in Washington State in July.
“It’s a healing journey, and it’s really great when we bring the youth,” she said, adding that she participated in a similar expedition last year.
“I was the oldest,” said Johnson, who will be 73 this year. “We paddled from Port Angeles to Puyallup, I think it was about a week.”
That’s a distance of some 185 km by road, according to Google Maps. She isn’t showing any signs of slowing down.
“I said, ‘Maybe I’ll retire when I’m 80,’” she said. “Everybody just laughs at me. They said, ‘I don’t think so. You’ll probably still be there.’”