Indigenous hero Preston Guno helped youths decolonize their minds and cleanse their souls

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      There will be plenty of tears and fond memories tonight at the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre as the community gathers to remember Preston Guno.

      The Nisga'a man spent many years in Vancouver mentoring and mobilizing Indigenous youth while working at the Broadway Resource Centre and a Downtown Eastside drop-in centre.

      He also worked as a child advocate for the Office of the Representative for Children and Youth when it was headed by Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond before moving to Prince George to set up a satellite office.

      Guno died of cancer last month in Prince George at the age of 49, where he was the director of Indigenous cancer care for the B.C. Cancer Agency. 

      "Preston's life was committed to helping support, hold up, and empower Indigenous youth," his sister, Marcia Guno, told the Straight by phone. 

      She added that in this time of grief and loss, she thinks that her brother would still want to ensure that everyone is keeping an eye out for the young people.

      "They're dealing with and processing the loss of Preston," she said. "How do we hold them up and how do we guide them through this profound loss that we're all feeling?"

      The Straight first reported on Guno's work in 2004 when he was at the Broadway Resource Centre helping Indigenous youth cope with police harassment.

      He worked alongside the then president of the Urban Native Youth Association, Melanie Mark (now the minister of advanced education), Kelly L'Hirondelle, and Curtis Clearsky to mobilize Indigenous youth to raise their concerns at the Vancouver police board.

      Preston Guno (second from left) in 2004 with (left to right) Advanced Education Minister Melanie Mark, then police inspector John de Haas, Indigenous educator Dena Klashinsky, and then police constable Dave Dixon.
      Charlie Smith

      In a tribute to Guno on Facebook, Clearsky described how the campaign resulted in 10 to 20 youths going up to the microphone at each monthly meeting. These young people would speak about their experiences of being racially profiled and how it affected their lives.

      "We maintained this until the VPD gave in and acknowledged the issues that eventually created several outcomes including a requirement for new recruits to take Indigenous cultural awareness training, and the aboriginal policing centre," Clearsky wrote.

      These actions also led the VPD to put the image of the thunderbird on squad cars because the thunderbird is seen as the protector in some Indigenous cultures.

      In those years, Guno worked closely with a progressive police inspector, John de Haas, who devoted a great deal of time learning about the history and impact of colonization on Indigenous peoples. Another ally at that time, according to Marcia Guno, was Jim Chu, who went on to become police chief.

      In 2006 while working with Turpel-Lafond, Guno wrote a paper outlining broader steps necessary for levelling the playing field for Indigenous youth.

      “The responsibility does not lie with one organization," Guno told the Straight at the time. "It relies on the whole system in general to have a more collaborative approach and a more Aboriginal-specific approach.”

      Preston Guno created warrior camps, which earned him the respect of friends Reg McInty, Curtis Clearsky, and Frank Alec.

      He created opportunities for Indigenous youth to become more connected to their culture by creating Walk Tall Warrior Camps.

      "The camps focused on the cultural resurgence of living on the land through ceremonial hunting, trapping, and harvesting skills," Clearsky wrote.

      Guno also advocated for youths to experience sweatlodge, sundance, and smudging ceremonies to help decolonize their minds and cleanse their spirits.

      According to his sister, he did all of these things himself. He also took coldwater baths just as his ancestors did before him. And he was an avid reader.

      "He sat and saw greater leaders before us, our former chiefs and matriarchs," Marcia Guno said. "He connected to elders. I think he always reflected on the wisdom of our family members who have passed on."

      One of those elders was his uncle, Larry, the second Indigenous man ever elected to the B.C. legislature. 

      What really stood out for anyone who met Guno was his presence. He conveyed a sense of strength, courage, conviction, and integrity that left a lasting impression on a large number of people.

      To cite one such example, this was demonstrated when he spoke to a journalism class at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. Following his discussion of Indigenous spiritual practices, students rushed to the front of the room to surround him, peppering him with questions.

      "Yes, he was an impressive man, because most people spoke about actions and Preston took actions for everybody," recalled his uncle, Jerry Adams. "But he always kept the lines of communications open, he always respected his opponents. He may not have liked their convictions but he didn’t belittle them." 

      Adams, who spent time on the Vancouver police board, also described Guno as "truly a leader for all Indigenous people no matter what the issue was because he felt everybody was to be treated with respect. Every Indigenous person was important for Preston." 

      The president of the B.C. Cancer Agency, Dr. Malcolm Moore, and the vice president population oncology, Dr. John Spinelli, said in a joint statement that Guno "dedicated his life to the service of others".

      They noted that he was "instrumental in advancing the issue of violence against women including Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls". 

      "Preston successfully promoted cultural safety in cancer care service delivery by leading various successful initiatives that have been well received by communities, patients and families, and B.C. Cancer staff," they noted. "Many of us have been greatly touched by his work and he leaves us with a legacy of respect, understanding and compassion for our continued care and work with Indigenous Peoples of British Columbia."

      He worked with the First Nations Health Authority, B.C. Association of Aboriginal Friendship Centres, and the Métis Nation B.C. to create the B.C. Indigenous Cancer Strategy.

      "Without his hard work and skillful leadership, the successful completion of strategy would not have been realized," Moore and Spinelli stated.

      Preston Guno left a lasting mark on cancer care for Indigenous people in B.C.

      Guno's parents, Raymond and Sylvia, both attended residential schools, and they instilled a love of education in the family, according to Marcia Guno.

      He spent his summers in the remote community of Cassiar Cannery near Prince Rupert, where he would work on his father's fishing boat.

      Guno attended school in Terrace, spent time in Vancouver when his dad was finishing a degree at SFU, and graduated from high school in the Nisga'a community of Gitlaxt'aamiks (New Aiyansh). He was also educated at the Native Education Centre, Douglas College, and the Justice Institute in the Lower Mainland.

      For many years, Guno was employed as a prison guard at the federal institution in Kent before being hired by the Urban Native Youth Association at the Broadway Resource Centre.

      For a while, Guno also worked with the Carrier Sekani Family Services and helped draw attention to a major Human Rights Watch report into the RCMP's treatment of Indigenous women and girls in northeastern B.C.

      Guno is survived by his wife Megan, mother Sylvia, sister Marcia, brothers Che Guno and Foster Adams, daughter Brianna, and step-children Jamie-Lynn and Jordan. He was predeceased by his son Augustus.

      A celebration of life for Preston Guno will be held from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. tonight (May 3) at the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre gymnasium (1607 East Hastings Street). Marcia Guno is working with the Urban Native Youth Association to create a bursary program to enable at-risk Indigeous youths to attend warrior camps to reconnect with their culture.