Athena Bonneau, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
From an early age, suiki?st (Pauline Terbasket) knew there was something more for her in her community.
Being raised in a culture where women are highly valued, she was encouraged to speak up and embrace her natural talent for leadership.
It hasn’t always been easy, but suiki?st has become a strong advocate — serving numerous Indigenous organizations and using her strong voice for the good of her people.
“Part of that journey has been my own liberation — becoming a syilx woman leader in my community,” said suiki?st, a member of Lower Similkameen Indian Band (LSIB), in an interview.
suiki?st was recently awarded with an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of British Columbia (UBCO) — in recognition of her decades of work serving the syilx Okanagan Nation and others living on their territories.
Notably, she has spent 25 years as the executive director of the Okanagan Nation Alliance (ONA), where she has worked to form strong ties with UBCO and has promoted Indigenous representation, cultural education and inclusion in university research.
“My doctorate has been (the result of) 50 years of lived experience on the frontlines of decolonization,” she said.
“As a woman of colour, we have to stand up more, we have to fight the good fights for our nation.”
The youngest of nine children, suiki?st was raised in the rural area of Keremeos in the Okanagan. She was given her traditional name as a girl, suiki?st — which translates from nsyilxcən to English as “Lightning Rainbow Woman.”
suiki?st started working as a summer student when she was 14, picking up rocks in the LSIB field, which eventually led to her advancement at the band office as a council member.
“That was when my world was like, `Wow, we do all of this, we have a chief and council, and they make decisions.’ I was proud to serve my community, in the larger context for my work as a social justice advocate,” said suiki?st.
However, it wasn’t until she attended a language gathering on the Penticton Indian Band (PIB) reserve in 1980 when she became aware of the sheer magnitude of what was possible.
suiki?st was at the PIB ball field and remembers a stage surrounded by Elders and people throughout the seven different syilx communities of the Okanagan Nation.
She recalls that only nsyilxcən was spoken during the gathering and a couple of translators were present on the stage.
“I remember it so vividly,” she said.
“This was my first exposure to Indigenous community activism, and that was the fire that started in my belly within my identity.”
One of the speakers was Jeannette Armstrong, who gave a presentation on the rich history of the Okanagan people, school systems and the work to keep the integrity of the syilx language and culture alive.
Upon leaving this event, suiki?st became aware and curious of her own life choices and she wanted to see change, which led her on a journey of recovery and healing.
“I’m a recovering alcoholic, I’ve witnessed a lot of violence in my life, due to the travesty of alcoholism that was rampant in our communities,” she said.
suiki?st, who lost several relatives in a short period of time, said the loss and grief process was one of her greatest sacrifices.
“I didn’t see my mom or my sister, or my brothers who all passed away in a matter of two years,” she said, “I went through some dark days, grief does change you.”
After years of healing herself, suiki?st knew she wanted to learn how to contribute to the betterment of her community and beyond.
“I knew that was my life path. I have been trying to find a balance in that because I’m like a lightning rod, I’m fierce — or I am giving you a warm embrace like a rainbow,” said suiki?st.
In 1998, suiki?st started working at the ONA where she found her true calling for community activism.
“I might be titled an executive director, but I’m really a social justice advocate for our people and for environmental justice,” she said.
In her role, she directs her efforts towards a wide range of issues spanning from children, Youth, families, and Elders to language revitalization, culture, health governance and traditional foods.
suiki?st says one of her most cherished involvements has been around the incredible achievement of the ONA supporting the vision of chiefs and Elders to restore the Okanagan sockeye salmon back to their historical spawning grounds.
“It took years but our nation didn’t quit, and now we have salmon in our river again,” said suiki?st.
Her dedication to community service is evident through her active involvement on numerous volunteer boards, where she once held the position of chairwoman at the First Peoples’ Cultural Foundation (FPCF).
Currently, she is actively engaged in two particular passions. The first involves her advocacy for Indigenous food sovereignty, which she champions through her involvement in the international Slow Food and Slow Fish movements — aiming to reclaim and protect the rights of Indigenous communities around their traditional foods.
“Water is life. Our salmon need water, we need water and clean water for future generations and the ability to grow food, which comes to Indigenous food sovereignty,” she said.
Additionally, suiki?st is a strong supporter of the IndigenEYEZ empowerment program. This program empowers Indigenous individuals and communities to develop their full potential, fostering a sense of self-reliance and actualization.
“What community means — what snəqsilxw means — is that we need each other,” suiki?st said.
She said it was a humbling surprise when she found out she is receiving an honorary degree from UBCO. She was sitting at her desk when she received an email from the vice-chancellor’s office requesting a Zoom call.
“They called to say they would send me an attachment, and in the letter it said, `You’ve been selected, do you accept this honour,”’ she said.
UBCO honors individuals who have made substantial impacts to society, which are awarded as three types: Doctor of Laws, Doctor of Letters, and Doctor of Science.
suiki?st was bestowed with a Doctor of Laws in June for her significant contributions to law and policy change as it relates to care of the environment and cultural revitalization.
Expressing her joy and astonishment, suiki?st shared: “I’m humble to it because I like to think I’ve made change, I’m claiming that validation and recognition of years of service to my community opposed to years of research.”
suiki?st has played a pivotal role in the development of incorporating Indigenous symbols into the regalia of the university’s chancellor, president and Board of Governors.
Additionally, she contributed significantly to the inclusion of Indigenous names on campus street signs, reinforcing a sense of belonging and recognition for Indigenous cultures.
“People need to see that the university is paying more attention to the land acknowledgements and artwork, that’s throughout the campus, I advocated for that,” she explained.
suiki?st received her appreciation for her exceptional contributions to UBCO at the graduation ceremony.
“While a university’s role is to teach our students and conduct research, we also hope our university helps to inspire people — just as we have been inspired by Pauline and .125fellow recipient Lindsay Gordon.375,” says UBCO Principal and Deputy Vice-Chancellor Dr. Lesley Cormack, in a press release.
“By giving honorary degrees, we are recognizing people who have made great strides to make our world a better place to be. I am thrilled to see these honorary degrees presented to two people who have contributed significantly to UBC and, specifically, the Okanagan campus.”
Although this public recognition is through a colonial institution, suiki?st says she has accepted it for her people and community.
“I feel so loved, so valued in public. Many of my mentors are in the spirit world, but this is for them and this is for my nation because this work gives me purpose and meaning in my life,” she said.
“I’ve never been so grateful for my job that I love.”