The rain relentlessly pursued Florence Thomas as she walked along the side of Lougheed Highway, passing cars slowed partly in curiosity and partly because a Ridge Meadows RCMP cruiser’s cherries flashed as escort.
The 66-year-old great-grandmother made the 20-kilometre trek from Albion to Mission recently to symbolize the struggle of her people, the Whonnock tribe, whom she says have been neglected and forgotten.
The Whonnock used to preside over 2,000 acres from Alouette to Stave, and south to the north bank of the Fraser. They now exist on a 92-acre reserve with three other parcels of land administered by the Kwantlen, whom Florence says largely ignores their plight. The Whonnock used to be independent, but were merged with the Fort Langley tribe under the Kwantlen umbrella in 1929.
“My walk of hope is a brighter future for all my families who are homeless today. Not homeless like on the street, but we haven’t had a house built on Whonnock reserve for over 20 years,” said Florence.
Florence has been without a house since 2003, when health inspectors condemned it because of mold. She was placed into native housing but was forced to leave because she had too many grandchildren living with her.
She was placed into native housing but was forced to leave because she had too many grandchildren living with her.
With four daughters, four sons, 27 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren, Florence has a large family, many of whom struggle to survive on and off the reserve.
In Halkomelem, Whonnock (pronounced “honnock”) means a place where many frogs make thunderous noise, according to Florence’s eldest son and chief, Robert Thomas.
Thomas, 42, goes by the hereditary name Xatsten and is estimates there are 60-80 people remaining in their tribe. He, too, is “homeless,” after his house burned down last year and there are no funds to replace it.
“I understand where my mother’s coming from because at her age she shouldn’t be homeless like this,” said Robert.
Living off a pension, Florence says she doesn’t have enough money to buy a new home, and the Whonnock pay the Kwantlen what little they have.
She said when she returned to her home with bleach to try and kill the mold, it had been stripped of anything useful (doors and sinks), and any possessions left behind were gone. The house, made mostly of wood, later burned down.
Florence, whose aboriginal name is Quay-na-wit, grew up in both modern-day Maple Ridge and Mission. As a child she was seized by the state and placed in Mission’s St. Mary’s Residential School for Indians at Heritage Park for six years.
It was a time when the First Nations peoples were not allowed to participate in their traditional ways. She feels the Whonnock are still deprived of that right today.
“The ultimate goal here is to reestablish our footprints back on our traditional territory and our lands so that we can live again and live the way we used to. The old people say if you don’t know your history, you’re lost,” said Robert.
Florence called her April 30 journey her “walk of hope.” It is a hope that someone, somewhere, will come to the aid of her people.