Garry Merkel dedicated his life to improving educational outcomes for Indigenous youth and is now being recognized for it with an honorary doctorate from the University of British Columbia.
Merkel, a member of the Tahltan Nation, is one of 18 people being honoured and joins Dr. Bonnie Henry and climate activist Greta Thunberg as a recipient.
A forester by trade, Merkel’s interest in culturally relevant education has deep roots harkening to an old family story about his grandfather. In the 1940s, the patriarch loaded up a cart with the family’s belongings and walked out of Telegraph Creek to Dease Lake.
“In Dease Lake, my grandfather built a boat, went partway down the Dease River, over-wintered and then went the rest of the way to Lower Post where the school was because he wanted his kids to go to school the next year,” Merkel said.
“They stayed there for a little while and he found out the school wasn’t what he thought it was going to be and then moved the whole family to Atlin.”
Working as a professional forester in the early 1980s, Merkel came across a report that indicated there were only about a dozen Indigenous persons in Canada who had completed post-secondary training in natural resource fields.
“That was right around the time of Delgamuukw and Sparrow… where Canada had recognized Aboriginal rights and title and the province was moving towards, ‘holy crap, we’ve got to work with these people now, we’ve got to figure out how to do this’ and we had no people on the Aboriginal side,” Merkel explained. “It was clear to a lot of us that we really needed to build a workforce.”
The beginning of building that workforce, he said, was a group called the Aboriginal Forestry Training and Employment Review, which Merkel chaired.
The idea was to work with post-secondary institutions and other organizations to develop a national culturally appropriate approach to training Indigenous people to work in the natural resources sector.
He also worked with a task force founded by the late former chief of the Coldwater Indian Band Gordon Antoine. The task force found that only one in 20 Indigenous people who went into post-secondary education in B.C. succeeded at a time when the average success rate for the rest of the population was almost 80 per cent.
They also found, at best, only around 20 per cent of Indigenous people were graduating from high school, Merkel said.
With those dismal statistics as a backdrop, people such as Merkel and Antoine started working in earnest on solutions such as the Provincial Aboriginal Post-Secondary Education Strategy and founding the Nicola Valley Institute of Technology, an Indigenous college in Merritt.
“We started to show people that Aboriginal people can attend post-secondary institutions and succeed at the same rates as the rest of the population if you build the appropriate supports for them and the appropriate cultural environment for them to learn in,” Merkel said.
“We were achieving success rates in the 90 per cent range and we were not compromising on academic standards because what’s the point of doing that because they can graduate, but can’t go anywhere with it.”
There are still gaps between Indigenous students and the rest of the population of B.C. in grade-to-grade transition, high school graduation and secondary to post-secondary transition rates, but they have come a long way and the gap is closing.
While feeling honoured to receive the doctorate from UBC, Merkel is taking it with a big dose of humility.
“Many many people have done this work over time and I’m just one cog in this big wheel,” he said. “I was part of it, but there were many many people who were part of it who aren’t being recognized. I appreciate being recognized, but without me this would have gone ahead anyways, it might have been a little different, but we all work for this cause.”
He is also getting a bit of a chuckle out of it.
“I’ve had many people over the years ask me if I would do an advanced degree and I said, ‘you know what, no offence, but I am just busy fixing the world right now and I don’t have time to do a degree, the only way I’m ever going to get one of those is if you give it to me as an honourary degree’.”
In addition to his work in education, Merkel is a founding member of the board of the Columbia Basin Trust, where he served as vice-chair for 11 years and chair for six years.
He was a senior negotiator and advisor for the Ktunaxa Nation Council, a registered professional forester with the Association of BC Professional Foresters, a co-chair of the B.C. Minister of Forests Practices Advisory Council, and a co-chair of the First Nations Council of Advisors.
He is a former chair of the Nicola Valley Institute of Technology board of directors, and a former chair of the BC First Nations Forestry Council.
He has been involved in building First Nations governments for almost three decades.
Merkel grew up on the land in Tahltan territory in northwest B.C. and currently lives in Kimberley.
His purpose is to create better ways to look after the land by empowering communities and others to build practical land-management tools, organizations, education, businesses, and public policy that integrate a deep philosophical base that worships the land.
UBC confers honorary degrees—the highest honours conferred by the university—to deserving individuals who have made substantial contributions to society. Honorary degrees are conferred honoris causa, meaning “for the sake of honour,” and are awarded as one of three types: Doctor of Laws, Doctor of Letters, and Doctor of Science.
Merkel and Henry are receiving Doctors of Science, while Thunberg is receiving a Doctor of Laws.
With files from Carolyn Grant