On the afternoon of May 26, Beatrice Little Mustache stood in a spectacular and festively decorated University of British Columbia auditorium to address the large graduating class. Beatrice had been invited there specifically to receive the highest award the university gives, namely an honorary doctor of laws degree (honoris causa, for the sake of honour).
The chancellor of the university, who stood next to her at the podium that day, was Steven Point, former lieutenant-governor of B.C. and the first Indigenous person to hold the chancellor position there.
Point is of the Skowkale First Nation and is a huge advocate for Indigenous Peoples. His pride, on hearing Beatrice’s journey and contributions throughout her life so far, shone from his face that afternoon.
That journey to get to this remarkable point in time for Beatrice Little Mustache has been a long one, with many trials. Born in 1948, she was the fourth of eight children of Nick and Agnes Smith and was delivered by a midwife on the Piikani reserve at Brocket.
Growing up they were all raised in Blackfoot culture and speak fluent Blackfoot, something the church tried hard to eradicate. They were disciplined with love not strapping, like in the residential school, and are deeply religious.
Her parents taught her the values she carries today: “To be kind, caring, gentle and positively assertive when I need to be.”
They also taught her the seven sacred teachings, through the stories of her ancestors. Those teachings are truth, humility, wisdom, honesty, courage, respect and love.
Vice-chancellor Deborah Buszard spoke at great length to the graduates about Beatrice’s journey and her accomplishments to date. She then officially requested that chancellor Point confer the honorary doctor of laws degree on her.
She then invited Beatrice’s nephew Ryan Smith to the stage, where he stood and profoundly sang a Black Horse Society song, one that belongs specifically to her family (clan).
Buszard stated that Beatrice was a survivor of residential schools but “did not allow the trauma she endured to break her spirit, nor her will to seek lifelong wisdom and serve the needs of others.”
That journey is now 44 years long, working in positions in adult and child welfare in all levels of government — band, municipal, provincial and federal. Beatrice has held leadership positions with Piikani Family Services, Alberta Provincial Child Welfare and the First Nations Health Consortium. All in the service of her Piikani First Nation and other Treaty 7 First Nation communities.
What is remarkable about Beatrice is that while working full time she raised five children and graduated from Mount Royal College with a diploma in social work. She later went on to acquire a bachelor of social work degree at the University of Calgary.
These days, Beatrice is active as a longtime trustee with the Peigan Board of Education, including 13 years as its chairwoman.
Since 2017 she has worked hard to promote enhanced education on issues pertaining to treatment and planning for First Nations youth in care. This work is done under the umbrella of a program known as Jordan’s Principle. This principle is described as a child-first, needs-based initiative that ensures all First Nations children have equitable access to all government-funded services.
This initiative came about after five-year-old Jordan River Anderson of Norway House Cree Nation died in hospital in 2005 amid a jurisdictional dispute between provincial and federal governments.
More recently, Beatrice has taken a leading role in trying to address the opioid crisis on the Piikani reserve. She shared a statistic with me about how many have been lost in one year there that left me stunned. She is undeterred in her determination to do all she can for her people.
Her words to the UBC graduates last month were profoundly important and in them were several messages.
It was her observation to them all that “Education is the key to positive change in all social and economic problems in life.”
She went on to say, “In this life we never know where the journey will lead us. In this era of truth and reconciliation, it is important for you graduates to be considerate of First Nations people and more importantly our children. Be respectful to their culture and their language and always seek guidance from the elders in your community. For they are the knowledge keepers.”
She then challenged the grads to step out of their comfort zone and go educate themselves on First Nations territories. “Learn our culture and protocols; maybe even attend a powwow. By doing this you will see a world different from who you are. You will see the seven sacred teachings in action.”
Beatrice Little Mustache has faced a number of extremely challenging life experiences, including a devastating house fire, the death of two spouses and a child, and the continuing mistreatment of her First Nations people and children. But after 44 years she continues to apply those seven sacred values in her advocacy on behalf of children, parents and elders.
A traditional dancer and gifted seamstress of regalia, she participates in community events to unite families and to honour elders. She is, among many things, an ardent golfer and scored a hole-in-one on the Pincher Creek course in 2020.
Beatrice Little Mustache’s resilience serves as an example to all of us, for hers is a life that has been lived and her journey continues.
First published in the June 7, 2023, issue of Shootin’ the Breeze.