A gathering of elders on the Saanich Peninsula

Saanich Peninsula First Nations preparing for thousands at Elders Gathering.

39th Elders Gathering King and Queen

Saanich Peninsula’s First Nations communities are getting ready to welcome thousands of elders from across B.C., Washington State and Alberta in the 39th annual Elders Gathering.

They expect around 2,000 elders to come to the Peninsula, together with many members of their families and caregivers. It’s estimated that there could be as many as 5,000 people coming to the area for the July 7-9 Elders Gathering.

Preparing the way for them is a huge undertaking — a challenge happily accepted by the Tsawout First Nation and a committee of volunteers and leaders from all four aboriginal communities on the Saanich Peninsula.

It’s mainly a social gathering, says Mavis Underwood, but there’s more to it.

“The event is a way for elders and their families to reunite with others they haven’t seen for a long time,” Underwood says.

And some may never see family again, she notes, as their age may preclude another meeting. And while the Gathering will focus mostly on socialization, Underwood says there are more serious aspects.

“For some, it can be about healing and recovery between the generations. It’s a chance to share the strengths of the elders, a way to pass on their knowledge to another generation.”

Underwood, from Tsawout, is one of the main organizers and has taken on a lead role for the community. Her own mother, 86-year-old Geraldine Underwood, is an elder and the oldest in her community. The area’s oldest elder, she notes, is 95-year-old Bea Elliott of the Tsartlip nation. In all, there are around 120 elders in the Tsawout, Tsartlip, Pauquatchin and Tseycum aboriginal communities.

“There’s a big social aspect to an Elders Gathering,” says Underwood.

Organizer Perry LaFortune, who made the successful bid in 2013 to bring the Elders Gathering to the Peninsula, adds there’s always a political aspect to the event — from health care and recognition of wartime service, to the overall social justice movement within Canada’s aboriginal community.

“It’s not supposed to be political,” adds Underwood, “but social change is always a part of our lives.”

A variety of workshops will be on offer during the Gathering — discussing languages, story-telling and more. LaFortune notes there will also be a lot of outings planned, from trips up-Island to whale-watching tours.

“For a lot of people, this will be the first or only time they’ll be on the Island,” he said. “We expect some will come before and stay longer after.”

Having seen the 38th Elders Gathering, hosted by the Penticton Indian Band, the organizers know what people are in for — and how much work it’s going to be to get ready over the next five months.

Helping reach out to local elders, potential sponsors and other partners will be Doug and Kathy LaFortune — the King and Queen of the 39th Elders Gathering.

Doug says the Coast Salish tradition never saw kings and queens, calling the roles more ambassadors than royalty.

“There’s a saying among North American aboriginals,” Doug says, “that when people are travelling, you don’t ask if they’re hungry, you just feed them.”

That’s the spirit behind the Elders Gathering, which will feature an elders feast on July 7 and a grand entry celebration on July 8. It all takes place in the tennis facility at Panorama Recreation Centre — one of the only places big enough to host such a large group of people.

“Our main goal is for this to be a social event that we hope they will not forget for a long time,” says Perry.

To that end, the organizers are reaching out to the business community, seeking sponsorships to help make the event a success.

Every little bit helps, adds Underwood, including the $91 they raised in a spontaneous gesture in a local elders’ meeting.

Tonight (Jan. 30) there will be a loonie-toonie fundraiser at the Tsawout First Nation band office. It runs from noon to 6 p.m. and beyond — a meal starts at 6 with prize draws to follow.

Another loonie-toonie event is set for Feb. 27 at the same place and time, says Underwood.

Organizers of the 39th Elders Gathering on the Saanich Peninsula have a lot of work yet to do but they’re staying positive and hope that energy lasts throughout this summer’s big event.

Learn more about the Elders Gathering at bcelders2015.ca or look for the 39th Annual B.C. Elders Gathering 2015 on Facebook.