'She looked after a lot of people': Beloved 'Namgis elder, Lilly Whonnock, dies of COVID-19
Daughter Linda reflects on the life of a community leader who touched many lives
Lilly Whonnock was so beloved, and so busy, her daughter, Linda Yalagalis Whonnock, had to pencil in a permanent day of the week to spend uninterrupted time with the go-getting elder.
That day was Sunday and it was set aside for the duo to do whatever Lilly wanted. Sometimes the two of them would check out a craft fair, or hunt for treasures in Lower Mainland thrift stores — it didn't really matter to Linda, as long as the two of them were together.
But it was a Saturday when Linda and Lilly spent their last day together.
The Whonnock women were sharing a Burnaby hospital room after both being diagnosed with COVID-19 when Lilly, a 'Namgis First Nation matriarch who shared her wisdom with many, succumbed to the virus. It was Jan. 30. Lilly was 82.
"I sat beside her until she left us," said an emotional Linda, speaking Thursday on CBC's The Early Edition.
Linda described her mother as a "renowned leader" who held elder-in-residence positions at both Vancouver Community College and the city's Native Education College where students and staff alike sought her out for guidance, or just to gab.
"She would counsel or she'd just listen or give advice when needed and asked for," said Linda. "It wasn't even just for First Nations people — it was for anybody that needed her."
The VCC community is deeply saddened by the passing of Elder Lilly Whonnock. Elder Lilly has been a voice for cultural knowledge and Indigenous stewardship at VCC for many years. Her medicine and kindness will be deeply, deeply missed. <a href="https://t.co/bJ8Iivru3c">pic.twitter.com/bJ8Iivru3c</a>—@VCCpresident
And Lilly had a long history of helping people in need.
Until she retired and relocated to Metro Vancouver, the residential school survivor worked as a community health representative in the Village of Alert Bay located on Cormorant Island off the northeast coast of Vancouver Island.
Linda grew up watching her mom care for everyone be they elders who needed medication, diabetics who needed resources, residents who needed rides to appointments or newborn babies.
"She did everything," said her daughter. "She looked after a lot of people."
In 2002, Lilly received a Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal for her community service.
She was a mother, a grandmother, a counsellor, and an important link to Indigenous cultural traditions.<br><br>But COVID-19 took all of that away. <br><br>Tonight, CBC looks back at the life of Lilly Whonnock. <a href="https://t.co/I6Pycme2sf">pic.twitter.com/I6Pycme2sf</a>—@cbcnewsbc
One day at a time
In addition to grieving the loss of her mother, and trying to regain her own strength after battling COVID-19, Linda has been worried about the health of her son, Alvin Stevens Jr., who also contracted the virus and was fighting for his life in intensive care in early February.
Stevens Jr. was discharged on Feb. 10 and mother and son are back home together now, helping each other grieve the loss of Lilly who, until less than two weeks ago, had lived there, too.
"Day by day where we're holding up as best we can," said Linda, whose first thought when she wakes up is still to go to her mom's room and see what Lilly's plans are for the day.
How Lilly got the virus, said Linda, is unclear. She recalls her mom going to the pharmacy for allergy medication, and to the mall to buy new pyjamas to stay cozy during the cold winter. Those are the only places Linda can think of where her mom may have picked up the virus.
Living life without Lilly will be hard, but for Linda, there are also many happy memories:
"Sundays are always going to be our day."
According to 'Namgis First Nation council minutes, Lilly became a member of the nation in 2014. Prior to that, her membership had been with the Mount Currie Indian Band, also known as the Lil'wat Nation. She maintained close ties with both communities.
With files from The Early Edition