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Donna Billy: Squamish Nation Elder's life of service and memories

‘Don't go too far off the road, you forget who you are.’

The walls of Donna Billy's spacious home near Totem Hall in Squamish, are filled with memories made up of photos and items she has collected or been given over her 71 full years. 

Billy, a Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation) Elder, was busy the day she sat down with The Squamish Chief, as she has been throughout her life. 

Name a local board, committee or government body and she has likely been involved in some way.

She has served on the Nation council and ran for the District of Squamish council. 

Recently, she was back working within the Nation on Elders programming. 

“We did a two-year project for the new Elder's program. We developed a new program for Elders by Elders,” she said. 

It is a lifetime of giving of her time and her knowledge that keeps her on the go.

She is just home from an errand on a recent snowy day when she sits down at her long kitchen table. Some of the dozen or so birds in cages in the TV room tweet as she talks. 

"Some of them are orphaned birds," she said. 

"I only wanted two finches; I have five or six now,” she said, noting that people bring her birds, too.

She is also looking after a nephew's parrot, which she is watching while he is off at the University of British Columbia. 

Billy, whose ancestral name, Sisolia, which she was given when she was 10 years old, means hard-working person; she was born in the Skagit Valley ​​in the United States but grew up in Stawamus.

She was raised mostly by her grandparents, Bertha and Moses Billy.

She said growing up on the Stawamus reserve, she was raised by the community, learning Sḵwx̱wú7mesh ways from the Elders, especially the women. 

"They taught me how to do a little bit of weaving, a little bit of everything."

In turn, Billy passes on that knowledge to the younger generation. 

She has been a lifelong learner and teacher.

"I teach kids. They are my whole life. I am so happy when I'm going to see them. They give me energy. And when they ask me questions, that gives me a lot of young feelings," she said.

She has been working with Squamish Nature Learners, for example, for four years about once a week.

"I teach them what I was taught,” she said, adding it is all Sḵwx̱wú7mesh-specific teachings.

"I taught them how to make cedar rope so they can go fishing. I showed them how to fish with it. I've taught them how to weave a little bit."  

A priority teaching is for the youth to respect themselves and their bodies, she said. 

"Doesn't matter what anybody says as long as you know you're clean. You know you look after your body, you look after your mind and soul. And you're out here learning from nature."

Religion

Billy said that her grandmother wanted her to be exposed to every religion, so Billy could choose for herself. 

She is the president of the Squamish Multifaith Association and attends the Shaker Church on the reserve, where she was baptized last year by minister Al Harry, who is also her cousin.

Members attend in Squamish every second Saturday and then attend the other Shaker church on the Capilano Reserve in West Vancouver the other Saturdays. 

Dealing with loss

Billy has had a lot of loss in her life, including her oldest son, Christopher Lee Billy - Shinnullsut-t, who died in 2020 of a heart attack at 47 years old.

Asked how she copes, she said she knows what her son would say about her grief.

"It took me a while, I had to really think about what my son would say," she said. "He did not like me crying. 'Mom, we got to go on. It is part of life. We are all going to die.'"

She said her attitude and what she would tell others who are struggling with their health or with loss, is to keep going and engage with youth. 

"I would tell anybody [to] play with the youth, interact with the youth, you pick up some of those happiness feelings, you know? They do ask weird questions but that makes you think."

School

Billy didn't have to attend residential school because her grandmother hid her, she said, something she is grateful for. She has heard the stories of brutal assaults and suffering of relatives. 

"I feel really bad that I didn't go through that with them," she said.

"We've lost so many First Nations people all around Canada, and the States. They call them boarding schools, whatever, they can change the names, but they can't change actions. ... All the money in the world will never heal that hurt."

When she went to Mrs. Smith's Kindergarten in Squamish public school, it was weird, she said.

The First Nations kids were called slurs and accused of having lice by some of the other kids, something that Billy said she never had in her life.

Kids also made fun of her bannock, which she brought to eat. 

"You learned quite quickly how to protect yourself," she said. "Mine was, 'You're just jealous because your mom can't make that bread.'"

She does recall hating the brown stockings her grandma made her wear to school. 

"So halfway to school, I would take them off," she said with a hearty laugh.

She attended school in Brackendale, then went to Carson Graham in North Vancouver, coming back for Grade 12, graduating in Squamish. 
She attended Vancouver Community College in its hospitality industry program.

Work

As a young woman, she worked at the Highlander Hotel in Squamish.

"I ran the bar—the lounge. I did that for a good 15 years there. And I had so much fun in that part of my life. It was the disco days," she recalled.

Then she moved over to work at the Chieftain Hotel.

"We used to have Loggers Sports’ dances," she said. 

She was crowned first runner up for Timber Queen in 1970, too.

"We had to make our own gowns. We had to make all that stuff. No smoking. No drinking," she said, adding she recalls three Nation women who ran in the pageant.

"I did really good in that area because I knew all the loggers," she said, referencing her time working in local lounges. "Year after year at the Chieftain, it was so much fun knowing all the old loggers and truck drivers—it was the era."

Billy says she misses that time of Squamish when everyone seemed to know each other.

"Pat Brennan was the mayor at one time, and the Brennan family was well known. As were the Kindrees," she recalled. 

"I was on the board with Dr. Kindree for years. I was part of that emergency development. I can go around town and say I was a part of that. And I'm proud of it."

As for the future, Billy says she hopes she will live to be 101 or 102, like her great grandfather and be able to look back and see the youth coming up behind her.

"See my generations coming to know who we are, what we are still; that we're Squamish Nation. We're First Nations and we're proud of it. Don't go too far off the road, you forget who you are," she said. 

For non-Indigenous locals, she hopes the children she teaches learn to understand and respect First Nations.

"Let them learn that we are good people."

Asked what she is most proud of, Billy reflected on the statement she made in the Timber Queen pageant.

"They asked me what my future goal was, I can still remember that. I said it was to go out and learn as much as I can, and bring it home and teach our people."

About a local is a regular column about an interesting Squamish resident. If you have someone you think we should feature, let us know. Email: jthuncher@squamishchief.com.


**Please note that this story was corrected after it was published. Billy attended school in Brackendale, but not at Don Ross. We also corrected it to say that Billy was first runner up in the Timber Queen pageant, not the winner, who was Cathy Magee.

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