Last night, I attended a memorable celebration of life for a Nisga'a man who left a big imprint on Vancouver.
Previous visitors to this site may have already read an earlier article I wrote about Preston Guno, who died of cancer last month in Prince George.
In recent years, he distinguished himself as the provincial director of Indigenous cancer care with the B.C. Cancer Agency and by leading warrior camps to help Indigenous youths reconnect with their culture.
In 2004, the then Vancouver youth worker organized dozens of young Indigenous people to appear at police board meetings to urge the VPD to treat them with more dignity and respect.
I fully expected local Nisga'a people to attend last night's event at the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre.
That's because of Guno's tireless dedication for Indigenous youth. This was also apparent when he worked for the Office of the Representative for Children and Youth under Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond.
In this regard, I wasn't disappointed. Nisga'a people in Vancouver made powerful and eloquent presentations attesting to Guno's selfless service, astonishing courage, and keen intellect.
But what surprised me was the respect shown by the Vancouver Police Department. After all, Guno had exposed its shortcomings in the early 2000s.
Vancouver police Chief Adam Palmer spoke at the event, calling Guno a "strong personality with a strong constitution". Palmer praised his work for youth and children and in enhancing cancer care, calling him a "compassionate man".
The chief also described Guno as a "strong advocate for police accountability".
"Sometimes he would talk about things that were difficult for police to hear," Palmer admitted. "He talked about the way police interacted with Indigenous youth. And he was relentless, coming to the police board talking to the police.
"I will tell you he was relentless in a very respectful way, well-spoken way, that made people listen," the chief continued. "And he made a difference."
That was demonstrated in the creation of an Aboriginal policing centre and in cultural competency training that police officers now receive. Guno's actions were the catalyst.
"The other thing is he touched people's lives—Indigenous youth in the community—but he also touched members of the Vancouver Police Department in a very special way," Palmer said.
One of those officers who was affected is Const. Rick Lavallee, who's the VPD's Indigenous liaison officer. In an emotional speech, Lavallee told mourners that Guno had a profound impact on the way he approached policing, teaching him how to listen to the community.
Another emotionally charged speech was delivered by Advanced Education Minister Melanie Mark, who was a colleague of Guno's when they both worked in Turpel-Lafond's office.
Mark, who is also of Nisga'a heritage, explained how she became friends with Guno in the early 2000s when they began focusing on frequent and often unnecessary arrests of Indigenous youths in East Vancouver.
In those days, Mark was the president of the Urban Native Youth Association and Guno was a youth worker at the Broadway Resource Centre. She said that Guno "dragged me into the fires" of activism.
She also called him a "truth teller" who fought for homeless Indigenous young people and foster kids who didn't have a place to go.
In those days, there was a growing controversy over the death of an Indigenous man named Frank Paul, who had been pulled out from a jail cell and dumped in an East Vancouver alley.
Guno and Mark both decided that things had to change in the way the VPD interacted with urban Aboriginal people.
"Preston had courage," she said. "He had guts and he didn't shy away from the storm."
Mark talked about Guno's love of the teachings of Chinese military strategist and philosopher Sun Tzu, whose tactics are revealed in The Art of War.
Guno's Twitter feed even features an image of Sun Tzu along with his quote: "A leader leads by example not by force."
"The youth infiltrated the police board meetings," Mark recalled in her speech. "They showed up in 20, 30, 40—packs of Indians—showing up at the police board saying 'enough is enough'. That takes guts."
Mark also revealed that Guno even took a former police chief, Jim Chu, to a sweatlodge on Squamish Nation land so he could learn more about Indigenous culture.
Not long afterward, she added, the Aboriginal policing centre opened and the relationship with the VPD had changed dramatically.
"The Aboriginal policing centre was transformative for what goes on in the city around reconciliation and how Indigenous people have the right to be treated," she stated. "He was a human rights activist."
She emphasized that Guno exhibited the same respect for Indigenous youth when he moved to Prince George to open an office for Turpel-Lafond.
He wouldn't just wait for people to come to the representative's office; instead, he would drive four, five, or six hours out of town to meet young people in their communities and invite their input.
A pamphlet about Guno was distributed to everyone who attended last night's celebration of life. On the back page, it showed a picture of Guno walking into a river alongside a quote attributed to Sitting Bull.
"Warriors are not what you think of as warriors.
"The warrior is not someone who fights, because no one has the right to take another life.
"The warrior for us, is one who sacrifices himself for the good of others.
"His task is to take care of the elderly, the defenceless, those who cannot provide for themselves, and above all, the children, the future of humanity."
Mark described Guno as a warrior and a gladiator who never hesitated to stand up for youth in the community, regardless of any personal risk in taking on the VPD in that era.
"Preston was a really good friend," she said, "and when I found out that he passed away, it was really hard because he had a big impact on my life, teaching me not to be afraid."