I recently had the pleasure of leading a Jane’s Walk around the Heritage Heart of Mount Pleasant. While researching the area and planning my route I noticed on Google Maps that the small, triangle-shaped piece of land in front of Gene’s Café, where Main Street and Kingsway meet, was labeled “Gertrude Guerin Plaza”.
As a resident of the neighbourhood, I walk through the area quite often and I’d never noticed anything indicating I was passing through “Gertrude Guerin Plaza”. Two questions immediately popped into my head: why had I never noticed this on Google Maps before, and more importantly, who is Gertrude Guerin?
The answer to my first question was fairly easy to find. A preliminary search turns up a City of Vancouver Commemorative Naming of Civic Assets report to council dated September 18, 2018, indicating that Gertrude Guerin Plaza is a relatively new accession. The report also states that a commemorative plaque will be installed in 2019. The last time I checked, this has not yet happened.
In that report I also discovered the abridged answer to my second question: Gertrude Guerin (1917-1998) was a “Chief, politician, community advocate, and fierce protector of First Nations people and culture”. My interest was piqued. A more complete answer to my second question would require more research. A lot of research, it turns out, as there is so much to know about this formidable indigenous woman and Musqueam elder. There is no way I can include it all in one little article, but I will give it a go…
Gertrude “Gertie” Guerin (Klaw-Law-We-Leth) was born Gertrude Mary Elise Ettershank on March 26, 1917 into the Squamish First Nation on the Mission Reserve in North Vancouver. After her mother died when she was only 12, she was left to care for her younger sister, Vivian, thrusting her into early adulthood with responsibilities beyond her experience. As a teenager, Gertrude started working at a local cannery, one of the few industries at that time that employed indigenous workers. It was there that she met Victor Guerin of the Musqueam First Nation. In 1936, at age 19, she married Victor, a 29-year-old longshoreman and fisherman, at St. Paul’s Catholic Church in North Vancouver, the same church where she was christened and confirmed. The couple settled in North Vancouver, where they raised their five children, Delbert, Beverley, Beryl, Glenn and Darryl.
In 1953, they moved their family to Victor’s home community on the Musqueam Reserve. It was at this time in her life that Gertrude really became actively engaged in advocacy work for the Musqueam and ultimately all First Nation people. This work took many forms. Most notably she became the first woman to be elected chief of a First Nation in Canada. From 1960 to 1962 she served as Chief for the Musqueam Band. During her two-year tenure, she was keenly aware of the declining “economic opportunities for Indigenous people living on reserves”. She wanted to change that.
An eloquent speaker, Gertrude was often in the local media in the 1960s and 1970s as the de facto representative of First Nation people. She was also in steady demand to speak on indigenous issues at service club luncheons, women’s clubs meetings, church assemblies and conventions.
She was committed to better quality education for indigenous people, once describing herself as a “pioneer in integration”. This started when she enrolled her own children into the public school system, first in North Vancouver and later on Vancouver’s west side near the Musqueam Reserve. Guerin was very active with the Parent Teacher Association (PTA) at her children’s schools. “It meant a lot to me to belong to the PTA. I thought meeting the teachers would make it easier for my children”, Guerin told the Vancouver Sun in 1962. When she first joined she was barely acknowledged by the other members, but she persevered and eventually became Vice-President of the Southlands Elementary PTA and President of the Point Grey Junior High School (later Point Grey Secondary School) PTA. (Two schools, incidentally, that I attended in the 1970s and 80s.)
Another achievement for Guerin was becoming the first indigenous woman to be president of a local PTA. In 1962, while she was serving as Chief, Guerin set up a program in conjunction with the Department of Education at UBC, where student teachers would visit the reserve three nights a week to tutor and assist Musqueam students with their homework. Guerin felt this extra effort was needed to support Musqueam school children to be as successful as their non-indigenous peers.
Gertrude Guerin’s name often appeared in the local newspapers. There is one instance from 1966, ironically in opposition to the civic naming committee who established her eponymously named plaza, where the then called “street-naming” committee recommended to Vancouver council that the streets in a new subdivision on the Musqueam reserve be named after famous golfers. “Well for goodness sake, I don’t see why they should be named after golfers – unless they’re paying for it” Guerin told the Vancouver Sun upon learning of the plan. She rightly felt that the streets should be given First Nation names. “I think I had better go down [to City Hall] and listen, maybe we should get up a protest”. This wouldn’t be the last time Guerin would have to fight with City Hall in regards to this housing development project. It was from instances like these that she likely earned the moniker “Old War Horse”.
In 1968, the then 51-year-old grandmother joined the TEAM (The Electors’ Action Movement) slate and ran for a seat on the School Board. In an interview, Gertrude Guerin told the Vancouver Sun “she had special knowledge of her people which will help solve problems concerning school children.” She added, “I believe I can get something done on the school board with the help of TEAM”. Sadly, she was not elected, which is truly a shame as I think she would have been a great asset to the School Board and to inclusive education in this city.
Not to worry, though. Guerin had many other things keeping her busy. She was instrumental in the establishment of the Vancouver Native Police Liaison Society and the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre Society, where she served as a director and later as president. Initially known as the “Vancouver Indian Centre Society”, the VAFCS’s mandate is the same today is as it was when it was founded in 1963: “to provide programs and services to indigenous people in Vancouver, particularly those transitioning into urban life”. Organizers, including Guerin, knew that a community place like the centre was desperately needed to combat the loneliness and isolation that many indigenous experienced as newcomers to the city. Without support, many ended up on the Downtown Eastside where they found some comfort in the chaos. In the early 1960s this need was particularly urgent when it was revealed in the press the sobering statistic that 43 indigenous women had died prematurely (often violently) on the DTES between 1961 and 1963.
Gertrude Guerin was also a force to be reckoned with on the national stage with Guerin v The Queen. She was one of six Musqueam band members (including her son, Chief Delbert Guerin, from whom the case gets it name), who sued the Federal Government (the Crown) in 1975 for breach of trust in its handling of the deal regarding the lease of 65 hectares of Musqueam land for the creation of the Shaughnessy Golf and Country Club. The case went through many levels of court before the federal court ruled in the Musqueam’s favour and awarded them $10 million in compensation. However, the compensation was repealed when the government appealed the ruling. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. In 1984, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the Musqueam and re-instated the original award stating that the Crown “has a fiduciary duty toward the First Nations of Canada” which they neglected in this case. This landmark ruling established a precedent in the recognition of Aboriginal Rights and Title in Canada.
The picture of Gertrude Guerin that emerged from my research is that of a strong individual with formidable energy and drive who tirelessly and publicly advocated for the rights of First Nation people, all during a time when married women were routinely addressed by their husband’s name (i.e. Mrs. Victor Guerin) and it was often hard to have one’s own (female) voice heard. (I imagine this would be doubly so for an indigenous woman). So the next time you are walking through Gertrude Guerin Plaza in the heart of Mount Pleasant, take a moment to remember her lifetime of achievements and how she helped to make this city better for all its citizens!