Eliot White-Hill’s family has been engaged with the Snuneymuxw community for generations. His great-grandmother, Dr. Ellen White, was a life-long advocate and teacher, and an Elder-in-Residence at VIU for thirteen years. She and his great-grandfather, Chief Doug White I, worked together to advance Indigenous rights and combat social inequality. His grandmother, Joyce White, was instrumental in creating the First Nations Studies program when VIU was Malaspina College in 1994. White-Hill’s father, Doug White III, graduated from Malaspina with a degree in First Nations Studies, then pursued a law degree at UVIC in 2006. After completing his degree, White went on to become Chief of the Snuneymuxw in 2009 and served until 2014. White remains on Council and serves as the Director of the Centre for Pre-Confederation Treaties and Reconciliation at Vancouver Island University.
White-Hill is also a VIU graduate. He completed his BA with a major in Liberal Studies and a minor in Philosophy, and he now works with the Petroglyph Development Group (PDG), the economic development corporation of the Snuneymuxw First Nation.
“Working for my nation, in advocacy, and helping to better our people is something I’ve wanted to do since I was really little,” White-Hill said.
“It’s a privilege being able to look at the role my family has had in the community, and to be able to go to them for help and guidance. Especially my great-grandma, who had a huge influence on my life,” White-Hill said. “I really appreciate the teachings my family has shared with me. With my great-grandmother passing away last year, I’m realizing what a privilege it was and how spoiled I was, being able to go sit with her and learn from her whenever I wanted; though even with her gone, I feel like I’m still learning so much from her in different ways.”
White-Hill was born in Nanaimo, but raised by his mother in Port Alberni. He returned to Nanaimo during high school and went to Nanaimo District Secondary School for two years before attending VIU. Originally, White-Hill planned to do a double major in First Nations Studies and Liberal Studies, as his father graduated from the First Nations Studies program and his mother graduated in the second wave of the Liberal Studies program.
“I saw that as really appropriate for my upbringing,” White-Hill said. “My mom’s such an intelligent person, and a fierce educator. It’s almost like a Liberal Studies seminar with every dinner.”
After taking some philosophy courses, White-Hill decided to take the subject as a minor and changed from his double major path. He felt inspired by VIU Philosophy professors Robert Pepper-Smith and Warren Heiti, as well as Liberal Studies faculty, Janina Hornosty and David Livingstone.
“The support I had from them was just incredible, both in learning and in my personal life. I’m so thankful that I was able to learn from them and be in those classes,” White-Hill said.
During the summer White-Hill would work for Mount Benson Forestry (now Petroglyph Forestry) on the Field Crew and in business development. Petroglyph Forestry is a subsidiary of PDG. Snuneymuxw was given approximately 2000 acres on Mount Benson as part of a reconciliation agreement in 2013, which has transformed the nation’s economy.
Mount Benson is a sacred place in Snuneymuxw culture. The traditional name of the mountain is Te’tuxwtun, meaning “grandmother of the surrounding mountains.” The mountain features prominently in one of the Snuneymuxw creation stories, wherein the creator dropped the first people out of the sky onto Te’tuxwtun.
“Being out there in the woods, that’s something our people haven’t been able to do in the same way since colonization, so it was special to be out there in the environment in an engaging way,” White-Hill said. “It made me think about how much logging has impacted our territory. Nearly all of our territory is second growth—it’s all been logged at various points over the past 150 years. When I would be out in the woods I always hoped to find some sign of the work that my ancestors did there, but it is gone for the most part. With that said, the forest is still there, the animals and the plants and the new trees are still there, that’s how nature is. I think that also speaks to the perseverance that we as Indigenous people have had within the colonial landscape—despite everything we are still here and working to better ourselves.”
After graduation, White-Hill was promoted to working in the office as a project assistant. White-Hill job shadowed the CEO and worked to develop business strategies and assist with managing projects.
“We’ve developed a harvesting plan, and we’re overseeing all the different forestry engineering management. We have a contractor that we hire to do the logging work,” White-Hill said. “Ideally, we’re going to work toward ourselves being the one who does that, where we have our own members trained up on heavy machine operating. The more we can bring things internal, the better it is. We can employ our own people and keep the money within our nation.”
While the forestry land has had a positive economic impact for the Snuneymuxw Nation, White-Hill is outspoken about the need to diversify economic opportunities. He has helped manage Newcastle Island (Saysutshun) with daily operations and revenue collection. His work on Saysutshun has seen the island’s history told from a Snuneymuxw perspective in the context of its pre-colonial history. Tourism to the island provides an economic opportunity for Snuneymuxw, but also serves as a way of advancing reconciliation by educating Canadians and people from around the globe about the traditional knowledge and teachings of Snuneymuxw elders and ancestors, reclaiming space that was greatly impacted by colonization. Before colonization, Saysutshun was a sacred space where healers would go for training, or people would go to prepare for spiritual work. During colonization the island was mined for its rich sandstone and coal deposits, and was a hot spot in the 1930s for tourists from across North America.
Aside from his work with Saysutshun and Petroglyph Forestry, White-Hill is helping develop plans for a Snuneymuxw gas station in Cedar, as well as cannabis industry opportunities.
He has an interest in green energy projects like harvesting tidal energy, and hopes to help such initiatives find more traction.
“There are so many different opportunities for us within our territory. It makes me proud as a Snuneymuxw person to have a part in it, and being able to help push ourselves to become more independent economically,” White-Hill said. “Acting upon the economic potential of our territory is a major part of economic reconciliation for us as a nation.”
White-Hill is planning to pursue an MBA with a focus on Indigenous business and leadership. His goal is to develop his skills through such a program to help with the work he does for PDG and Snuneymuxw. After that, White-Hill has his sights on a degree in Indigenous Law from UVIC.
“For right now my goal is to continue to develop my skill set and gain experience,” White-Hill said. “With the MBA and the law degree I’d be able to work either as a lawyer, an advocate, or in negotiations. I want to help out a lot of people, even beyond Snuneymuxw and beyond BC. If I could do work across Canada for Indigenous people as a whole to help realize the potential of reconciliation both socially and economically, I think that would be really special.”