Vancouver Island University’s former president has been appointed as a member of the Order of Canada.
Canada’s Gov. Gen. Mary Simon announced on Wednesday, Dec. 29, a class of 135 appointees to the Order of Canada, including Nanaimo’s Ralph Nilson “for his exemplary leadership as a university administrator, and for his student advocacy and commitment to the process of reconciliation,” according to a news release.
Nilson was president of VIU for three terms, starting when the institution was still known as Malaspina University-College. He retired in 2019.
Nilson told the News Bulletin he was surprised and humbled to receive the call from Rideau Hall earlier this month notifying him about his upcoming appointment.
“None of this kind of work that I do and have privilege to be involved in is done on your own,” he said. “My work is woven together with so many people and so many different individuals that I work with and have worked with. It’s through those collective efforts that all these good things that we’ve been able to do have been done.”
Nilson said he was told that some of the reasons for his appointment as a member of the Order of Canada include his focus on reconciliation, his efforts in building pathways to education, and his work to build an institution with a “values-based approach” and a responsibility to the communities it serves.
He said at VIU, there was an effort to ensure that community members recognized that the institution was theirs, and it was the university’s responsibility to open its doors to those who may have faced systemic barriers.
“Everybody should have the opportunity to excel…” Nilson said. “It shouldn’t be just for the people who are, many times, privileged to have choices. We saw some incredible outcomes from investing in young people.”
He mentioned the tuition waiver for youths in care, and accrediting elders as professors as some of the initiatives that made VIU more welcoming.
Nilson has stayed active in his retirement, and said some of the work that’s particularly excited him has been with the new Kw’umut Lelum Foundation, an Indigenous-led charitable foundation supporting Indigenous youths, education and community well-being.
“It opens up a whole other conversation that addresses reconciliation, that addresses the incredible talent and strength of the First Nations communities, but also offers an incredible learning opportunity from the really quite amazing history of gifting within First Nations communities,” he said.
The Order of Canada, created in 1967, recognizes achievement, dedication to the community and service to the nation, according to the news release. Nilson is the first person from Nanaimo to be named to the Order of Canada since 2017, when Snuneymuxw elder Ellen White (Kwulsaulwut) received her insignia.
Nilson doesn’t know when his ceremony will be or whether it will be held in person, but expects it to happen sometime in 2022.
“I’ve been privileged. I’ve been receiving learning and teaching and understanding from a lot of people and it’s as a result of that that I’m able to continue to contribute,” Nilson said. “I’ll continue to look for ways that I can contribute and work with good people and where I can add value. And that’s going to be continuing for a while yet.”