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B.C. PhD with terminal cancer presented degree in groundbreaking house call

Penelakut woman Valerie Bob can’t travel so Simon Fraser University staff members come to her home

She did the work. She earned the honour. All that remained was determining a way to give Valerie Bob the proper recognition.

Bob, 66, could not attend a traditional ceremony to receive her Doctor of Philosophy (Individualized Interdisciplinary Studies) from Simon Fraser University since she’s bed-ridden with terminal cancer. That’s where conventional thinking went out the window to make the special moment still happen for Bob.

Drs. Dorothy Christian and George Agnes from the Graduate Studies office at SFU came to her home on Penelakut Tribe’s Tsussie Reserve to present Bob with her degree last Wednesday, Aug. 9, with a circle of proud family members and friends in attendance. Christian and Agnes also brought along full PhD graduation regalia to make the ceremony as authentic as possible under the circumstances.

“This is the first PhD conferred in this manner at SFU,” confirmed Agnes.

Older sister Jill Harris said Valerie is an amazing woman of courage and she was pleased to host invited guests for the unique ceremony.

“This celebration would not be happening as it is unfolding if someone had not decided that it was time to step ‘out of the box,’” acknowledged Harris.

It was indeed a poignant ceremony that touched upon everyone’s heartstrings given Bob’s condition.

Penelakut Tribe Elder Harris pointed out Valerie has been battling cancer for three years, but throughout her illness and treatment continued to work on her dissertation and fulfilled requirements for her PhD. Valerie received a Bachelor’s degree with a Major in Sociology from Seattle University and a further degree of Master of Native American Special Education from Antioch University in Washington State.

The collective regalia, the robe, the hat and the hood brought by Christian and Agnes are all symbolic.

Agnes noted hats clearly have utility and significance in Indigenous cultures. And the hood, part of the regalia unique to the university, also has significance.

“Dating back at least 800 years, it was symbolic of a learned individual, and likely modelled after robes worn by monks,” Agnes pointed out. “In the present, the hood is not worn up as a hood, but likely was in fact a real hood 800 years ago, to keep warm. The hood has coloured cloth organized to be indicative of the university where the PhD was earned, and the hood in particular is now intended to be worn off the individual’s back where the colours, and by extension, the university, is displayed.”

The regalia was prominently displayed on a chair in Bob’s home while family members and the university representatives spoke about her.

“I’ve been working with her during her PhD program,” said Christian, associate director for Indigenous Policy & Pedagogy in Graduate Studies. “When I first met Valerie, it was just after COVID on Zoom. We had numerous conversations on Zoom about her PhD work. I had just started my job in graduate studies. This is a new position.”

Christian said it’s a role she takes most earnestly and a plan for the historic day was put into action and evolved over time.

“Val was in a precarious situation with her health,” Christian noted. “How do we make sure she gets her degree? I had to do things outside the usual boxes.”

That’s where she said Agnes came in for the many things he does within the boxes at the university.

“I’m just so glad we were able to do this,” said Christian. “I don’t have words. I know how much it meant to her because we talked about that.”

“This was an interesting opportunity for us,” added Agnes, associate dean of Graduate Studies. “It was easy for me because Dorothy said ‘George, you need to do this.’”

“Dorothy and I had lots of help within graduate studies, amazing individuals who assisted from in-graduate studies as well as other offices across the university,” Agnes pointed out.

“This is the perfect example of what our mom told us,” said Harris. “My mom said know everything about who you are and never forget who your family is.”

Bob was surrounded by family for the special occasion while she listened from her adjoining bedroom.

“So thankful to have this opportunity to join her where she’s at to celebrate her hard work,” said Cowichan Tribes Chief Lydia Hwitsum, who was there in a family member capacity as a cousin.

“All our lives we’ve been inseparable,” said friend Loretta Cook. “We had fun together. I’m very glad to be here today. It’s a treasured moment, an honoured moment to be here to witness what’s happening.”

“There was some big struggles,” said Cecelia Elliott, who served as Penelakut Tribe’s education co-ordinator for 18 years. “Val wholeheartedly knew she was going to make a better place for her children, her grandchildren, her people.”

“What a great role model she is for her children and the babies that are coming up,” added sister Fran Bob. “Our late mom was always encouraging to get an education.”

She praised Val’s daughter Sophia for being so dedicated to the care of her mom now and actually sleeping in the room with her during this difficult time.

“I’m really proud of my mom for her accomplishments,” said an emotional Sophia. “She went through a hard time for a long time with just me. She always told me you’re home now, just do what you can do one day at a time.”

Congratulatory letters from other SFU staff members were read to Valerie Bob in her room.

From Dr. Roxanne Panchasi, graduate program chair for Individualized Interdisciplinary Studies and associate dean-academic, Graduate Studies: “After reviewing your body of work in the PhD program, your thesis supervisor Dr. Marianne Ignace concluded that you have made a significant contribution to your field, particularly with respect to the preservation of the Hul’q’umi’num’ language. I am delighted that the university has awarded you the PhD in honour of all that you have accomplished. I also understand that Dr. Ignace will be looking to ways to ensure that the scholarly and wider community is able to learn from your work into the future.”

̓Dr. Marianne Ignace is Valerie Bob’s supervisor and director, Indigenous Languages Program and Distinguished Professor, Linguistics and Indigenous Studies who’s currently in Tutume Village, Botswana, Africa. She wrote: “I am so proud and humbled by your accomplishments throughout your lifetime and as you were working on your PhD, researching and writing about the language, cultures, songs, prayers and stories of your people in Hul̓ q̓’umı̓’num̓ . This is a well-deserved degree. In mind, spirit and words, your work will leave a deep and long-lasting legacy.”

From Dr. Ron Ignace, commissioner of Indigenous Languages, also via Botswana: “Your work will always help your relatives and future generations so that they will not forget the knowledge of your ancestors, and this is how you will help your people forever!”

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Don Bodger

About the Author: Don Bodger

I've been a part of the newspaper industry since 1980 when I began on a part-time basis covering sports for the Ladysmith-Chemainus Chronicle.
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