Fran Hunt-Jinnouchi’s grandfather was her first teacher. He shaped her perspective on the world and recognized her gifts. On the water, along the beaches and in the big house of the Quatsino people of northern Vancouver Island, she watched him fish, listened to his life stories and learned the Kwak’wala language. He nick-named her “Jsianu” and told her that one day she would speak for their people. It was a “beautiful, idyllic situation” for the first 12 years of her life in the isolated village of Old Quatsino. Now, in her new job of linking the University of Victoria and Indigenous communities, she often revisits those shores—in memory, and in regular trips back to the places and people of her upbringing.
“My grandfather had a very focused approach to everything he did. He always linked what he was doing to a story or something that he had seen,” Hunt-Jinnouchi recalls over coffee and conversation in her office in the Sedgewick Building.
“This one time there was this old silver tub and I filled it with rocks and seaweed and things I had found on the beach. I put some crabs in and I brought it to him. I was very excited because I thought I had set it up beautifully. My grandfather said, ‘Only for a day. Only for a day. Without freedom they will die.’ I remember doing dishes years later and hearing Barbara Frum (on CBC radio) talking about Oka. And that story came (to me). Because it was all about containment. And there was this sense that as a people we were forced to be contained. It’s those types of things and the way that he taught me. They didn’t quite resonate with me as a child but they’ve tended to come forward later.”
By 1972 the village population of Old Quatsino had dwindled to the point where it wasn’t feasible to stay. Hunt-Jinnouchi’s family members were the last to leave, joining others from her community near Quatsino and, in the summertime, the fishing and hunting territories of Winter Harbour. But the community bonds of the traditional way of life had already begun to decay. There had been a lot of bad car wrecks on the road to Port Hardy. And, at 12, she was hearing the older people talk about and mourn all of the suicides. “I didn’t even know what suicide was.” She loved the one-room school in Quatsino but in Grade 8, after her family moved to the Port Hardy area, she dropped out of school. “It was just not for me.” Her parents, who had been through residential schooling, accepted her decision without question.
“I didn’t return to the school system until I was 27 years old. I spent a year upgrading. I just knew that I wanted to build on my skills that would be helpful in my community. I guess the natural connection was to move forward into social work.”
No one had encouraged her to put her talents to use and to consider post-secondary education until she met her husband, Marc Jinnouchi, in Port Hardy when he was doing a practicum for his criminology degree from Simon Fraser University.
He persuaded her to finish her high school prerequisites for the UVic School of Social Work. She chose the program because, except for three weeks on campus at the outset, she could complete her studies via distance education. By that time she was bringing up a family and had started a successful boat rental and kayaking business specializing in native cultural tours through Quatsino Sound. “So I cannot emphasize enough the need for relevant Aboriginal (educational) programs—online, distance hybrid models… what can we do at the community level?”
After completing her BSW in 1994, she earned her master’s in adult education from St. Francis Xavier. She was the first First Nations person elected to the Port Hardy school board. She worked for seven years with the Saanich Indian School Board as director of its adult education centre. And she is a former chief of the 300-member Quatsino First Nation, an experience that “was like a PhD in one year. It gave me a different lens for looking at my community and looking outward at the multiplicity of tasks that are required and the need to build capacity to be able to deal with the onslaught of what has been thrown at us. From environment to economic development to social issues to health issues that are just rampant with diabetes. And yet within there is so much strength.”
Late last year, UVic was advertising for applications for the newly created post of “Indigenous Affairs Director.” Fran Hunt-Jinnouchi’s life in education was about to take another turn.
“To be honest, I was quite apprehensive because I wasn’t sure where the university was in terms of truly wanting to build relationships (with Aboriginal communities),” she recalls. “We need reciprocal relationships, not one-way relationships, because basically that’s where we’ve been in the past. I was also very candid when I went through my interview process that if this position is intended as a token position and we’re not really ready to respond to the needs and work with communities then I’m the wrong person.”
About eight months into the job, she’s thrown herself into it with an infectious keenness and energy. She speaks of the full support she’s received from President David Turpin. She’s held all kinds of meetings and planning sessions on campus and in communities across the province. “There are capacity needs within all sectors of Aboriginal communities, especially as we move towards post-treaty. There’s band administration, they’re running their own health offices, land management, economic development…it’s really limitless, so we need to respond to that.”
Already, Hunt-Jinnouchi has a focused list of priorities, like the need for a point-of-contact person on campus that Aboriginal students and members of their communities can go to first when they come to campus. There’s a need for a stronger elder presence on campus. In September, her office led an orientation and full week of welcoming events were organized for Aboriginal students. There are discussions about introducing summer math, science and computer camps and after school programs, as well as a summer orientation program for students in adult education programs (since the median age of Aboriginal students entering university is 30).
When the interview ends, Fran Hunt-Jinnouchi will make a phone call to see how the fishing is going up-Island. It’s been a dismal year for the sockeye runs but she’ll be making the six-hour drive north to spend the weekend at home to “smoke fish, can fish, and freeze fish.” She talks about how she would love to be kayaking and she remembers the visitors who would come from Europe for her paddle tours of Quatsino Sound.
“We would end every night with the Talking Feather and you would hear comments like, ‘Now I understand why the land is so important.’ It was that experiential learning that made a difference. So here, it’s certainly applicable. By bringing faculty and staff to the community, that’s where that transformation will come about. Yes, I’m working for the university but I’m here because I’m working for the community. I have my feet in both worlds.”
Equal Knowledge | 2