“I think the world has changed in a lot of ways as far as education for First Nations people,” says Clarence “Butch” Dick, recipient of an Honorary Doctorate of Laws. Photo by Dan Anthon, provided by Royal Roads University
Vancouver Island

Clarence ‘Butch’ Dick of Songhees Nation ‘deeply humbled’ by honorary degree

The artist and educator was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Laws from Royal Roads University.
Jenessa Joy Klukas November 20, 2021

Yux’wey’lupton — or Clarence “Butch” Dick — has been awarded an honorary Doctorate of Laws from Royal Roads University for his work as an artist and an educator.

“I was deeply humbled by the recognition,” says Dick, who was one of two leaders to receive the honour at the university’s fall 2021 convocation on Nov. 19.

Royal Roads also honoured Lillian Howard, who “was on the frontlines of advocacy for Indigenous people in B.C. and Canada,” for five decades before she died in October. Howard was a member of the Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nation and was of Nuu-chah-nulth, Kwakwaka’wakw and Tlingit ancestry.

“You will be missed, yet your lifetime of actions has sown and nurtured strong roots across the country. Your contributions – to justice, health, environment and reconciliation – will be remembered and will go on to empower and awaken minds to Indigenous peoples’ rights long into the future,” reads a statement about Howard from the university.

Dick is from Songhees Nation, and he’s spent decades teaching Indigenous art in public schools, designing Indigenous education curriculum and working to revitalize Indigenous languages at the university level. He’s also a husband and a great-grandfather. 

“​​Royal Roads owes much to Yux’wey’lupton, a true visionary guide and knowledge-keeper,” reads a statement from the university from Nov. 15. 

“​​Butch is known for being a bridge-builder, making strong and lasting ties between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people within this community. Through his art, words and teachings, he is a peaceful creator of conciliatory action and inspires others every day.”

Dick spoke with IndigiNews about working with students and the changes he’s seen over time in the education system. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Jenessa Joy Klukas: Today you’re receiving an honorary Doctorate of Laws from Royal Roads — (congratulations!) — in recognition of your work as an artist and an educator. Can you talk about what this means to you?

Clarence “Butch” Dick: It was a great honor, and I was deeply humbled by the recognition. 

I’ve been involved with education most of my life, and that was also not part of a big plan  — just the way things went in my life that I ended up being an educator in a number of different ways.

JJK: Royal Roads describes you as an educator and a knowledge keeper. I’m curious what those words mean to you. 

CBD: I have been working as a knowledge keeper for a while. I wouldn’t describe myself as a knowledge keeper, just an Elder [who] has learned through experience.

JJK: Is there anything you would like people to understand about your own education?

CBD:

I think the world has changed in a lot of ways as far as education for First Nations people. Back in my day, our paths were chosen for us.

I went to residential school. and also Indian Day School, which probably left me with a lack of ability to progress. So, education was always difficult for me, which kind of helped me at least to advocate for First Nations students. 

JJK: Thank you for sharing that. Can you tell me how you came to be an artist?

CBD: I’ve always been able to draw and create art, which started with sketching, and that led me along. As far as wanting to learn more about art, it wasn’t until after [going to] Vancouver’s School of Art that I realized that I didn’t know enough about First Nations Art. First Nations art began another leg of my journey to learn about First Nations art, in particular, Coast Salish — which I learned at Camosun College.

JJK: I understand you’ve spent 25 years teaching Indigenous art at Victoria-area public schools. Is that correct?

CBD: Yes, in the Greater Victoria School District. At first they called us instructors. Then First Nations art became part of the school curriculum. Then they made us teachers. I just about taught in every school in Victoria.

JJK: Are you still teaching?

CBD: No, I retired. Reluctantly, because, you know, I liked working. I liked being involved in education. But I’m still involved as a council member for School District 61. And, of course, for Royal Roads University and the Indigenous Perspectives Society.

JJK: What did you find most rewarding about working in public schools?

CBD: Now that I’m retired, you know, the recognition from students is uplifting. Students quite often come up to me and thank me for being their teacher at one time, either at UVic [University of Victoria], or the school district. I constantly meet people that I’ve taught in District 61. And of course, they’re all grown up with their own families, but they still remember me as a teacher.

JJK: Did you teach at UVic as well? 

CBD: I was asked to help with a program called “Indigenous ways of teaching and learning” by Dr. Lorna Williams … a voluntary program for teacher [education] graduates. It was a non-credit program which gave knowledge of how to work with First Nations students.

JJK: Circling back to public schools for a moment, what was the most challenging part, working in public schools?

CBD: For teaching First Nations art, acceptance is always a challenge, and not only for teachers, but principals and students. And just realizing what knowledge they have about First Nations people … other than what is in the media and everything else. Try to put those aside. 

JJK: Have you been able to see changes over time in this school system?

CBD: I think especially this year there is a gradual movement ahead. People are talking about Indigenisation and colonisation and reconciliation and many, many other things. And there’s just so many things that people can address. 

JJK:  You were telling me a bit about your experience with UVic, can you tell me about your work with Royal Roads? 

CBD: I’ve been involved in the Heron People [Circle]. It’s like an Elders’ council. We sit and discuss things that Royal Roads is addressing. We talk about our history and education and compare it with today’s education. [Royal Roads] have a very large number of First Nations graduates from all over Canada. That just shows how far we’ve come. 

You look at a number of people that are not only working at UVic, but students too. Things are changing gradually. 

The main focus in my mind is working with students who are having a lot of difficulty with education, and trying to bring them up to a standard they are comfortable with. In my lived experience with the school system, I see how different things were in my day, as opposed to nowadays. It’s more about opportunities.

JJK: Is there anything that you found particularly challenging working with universities?

CBD: I think the challenge for me was moving up from teaching in the school district to moving up to teaching at UVic — they were vastly different. The languages are different and the way of approaching things is different. I taught every grade level in the school system. Moving up to the university was a huge challenge for me.

JJK: Have you been able to see any [other] changes over time working with universities?

CBD: I think there’s been a lot of changes, that probably really comes down to the fact that there’s so many First Nation champions working at UVic and Camosun — I think largely due to people like Lorna Williams, who championed the language program at UVic and opened up a lot of different spaces. 

Different parts of UVic became more inviting to First Nations students. Many students I know that I watched go through the system, are either teaching in the system or are working for their nation as educators.

JJK: In the statement provided by Royal Roads they mentioned that you designed Indigenous education curriculum. Who are you designing it for? And how was that experience for you?

CBD: That was quite different. I worked with a lady named Karin Clark, who used to work for the school district in curriculum design. The first book that we published was about First Nations arts and culture. We worked with First Nations drumming and singing, and storytelling. We attached stories to different things that we could make. 

[For example], to jazz up the teaching we would talk about transportation, and we would explain how canoes were carved and built, and what they were used for. So students are given an experience with First Nations art, and how designs are made. 

We’d talk about different parts of the culture that we are allowed to share, and what we weren’t — to show that we have boundaries. 

JJK: Was that a good experience for you, creating this curriculum?

CBD: It was pretty daunting and challenging, all the extra hours explaining, page by page. 

We would focus on all different things, like masks. We’d explain why masks are used and how they are put together — using layers and layers of art to actually give students that experience of actually creating a mask that they could wear. 

We’d do this along with making canoe cutouts. I saw students on the news running from a school holding canoes and realizing that the curriculum had gone all the way across Canada.

JJK: That’s wonderful! What are you working on now since you retired? Do you have any projects on the go currently?

CBD: I do a lot of comfort sketching because it relaxes me. And I love to cartoon. I design logos for people. I did a design for the school district years ago, which was a 4×4 acrylic painting. We’re going to use that for a conference. I’m finding things I’m comfortable with, and not feeling pressured into doing things.

JJK: Is there anything in particular you’d like to be remembered for?

CBD: I’m concentrating on family — I’m always very, very honored to be a father and grandfather and a great-grandfather. Other than that, my aspirations are that I’m able to create when I’m asked to create and when I feel like doing it. I’d like to be remembered as an Elder and a person. 

JJK: Thank you for sharing and being willing to talk to me! Congratulations, again, on the honorary doctorate.