Black Press has learned that Neil J. Sterritt has died after a two-year battle with cancer.
“He faced it like he faced everything in his life,” said Barbara, his wife of 56 years, from their home in 150 Mile House. “He was brave and strong and he was strong for me, so that helped.”
Sterritt was a renowned Gitxsan leader and author. As president of the Gitxsan-Wet’suwet’en Tribal Council from 1981-1987 and director of land claims and self-government with the Assembly of First Nations in Ottawa from 1988-1991, Sterritt played an instrumental role in developing the landmark Indigenous rights and title case Delgamuukw v. B.C.
“He was so passionate about his people, and about First Nations people and life, he loved the outdoors and his family was so important to him,” Barbara said. “He poured his heart into everything and working for Indigenous people everywhere was so important to him, but working for his own people was extra special.”
Sterritt was born and raised in Hazelton. As a young man, he left the Northwest to study and work in the mining exploration industry both throughout Canada and internationally.
He returned to Hazelton in the early 1970s where he managed the ‘Ksan Historic Village and Museum.
After his stint in Ottawa, Sterritt moved back to northern B.C. eventually settling in the Interior with his wife Barbara in 150 Mile House to be closer to their sons Gordon and Jamie.
There, he wrote the book Mapping My Way Home: A Gitxsan History, which was published by Smithers-based Creekstone Press.
In the book he chronicles the history of the Gitxsan people from the time of contact with the first packers, traders, explorers, miners and surveyors, who entered the territory 150 years ago.
He also shares the story of his own journey “from the wooden sidewalks of 1940s Hazelton to the world of international mining and back again to the Gitxsan ancestral village site of Temlaham where he helped his people fight for what had always been theirs in the ground-breaking Delgamuukw court case.”
Barbara said the book was Sterritt’s pride, but personalizing the story was difficult.
“He had a hard time talking about himself,” she said. “Neil didn’t give himself credit, but [publishers] Lynn [Shervill] and Sheila [Peters] both said you’ve got to put something of yourself in there.
In 2017, Mapping My Way Home was awarded the Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Prize, which recognizes “the author(s) of the book which contributes the most to the enjoyment and understanding of the province of British Columbia.”
Also in 2017, Sterritt was inducted into the Order of British Columbia.
“Neil Sterritt has made major contributions to British Columbia and to First Nations over many years, working tirelessly and selflessly both to strengthen his people’s proven ability to embrace opportunities while holding onto traditional values,” said the Order of B.C. announcement. “He has brought all British Columbians together on the common ground of hope and possibility.”
He was also awarded the Queen’s Jubilee medal and received two honourary doctorates, one of University of Toronto and one from the University of Victoria.
But despite all his accomplishments, Barbara said perhaps the most striking thing about her husband was his humility and integrity.
“He never bragged, he never looked for glory or pats on the back or anything, he was very humble,” she said. “He had great integrity.”
Sterritt died April 9 on his 79th birthday.
“I was so proud of him and what he did,” Barbara said. “I was so lucky to have been married to him for over 56 years. We had a wonderful life.”