Simply put, this year’s gallery exhibit, Knúcwentwecw - the bridges built by Dr. Mary Thomas, was a dream come true. It was an opportunity of a lifetime and the timing could not have been better to honour an amazing woman whose life's work persists through the lives of others.

I first met Dr. Mary Thomas in 1991 when I applied for a travelling exhibit with the Royal BC Museum. I wanted a local component to supplement the display and contacted Mary. She invited me to her home to talk about her work in fostering understanding between cultures. There was an immediate connection. I felt the bond between her work and the work my own mother did in advocating for others.

The result was a display called Mary Thomas, Significant Citizen–my first professional exhibit.

Fast-forward now to 2022 with an exhibit that bookends the end to a very special career–my own.

All along I’ve felt an obligation to tell and honour our community's stories to thousands of visitors each year. The Shuswap is a special place. There are many remarkable stories, but to qualify, exhibits have to have had an impact and an international appeal. Dr. Mary’s story had to be told from a different perspective. It needed a new lens supported by testimonies from the people that knew her.

I needed help. I called on Dr. Mary’s youngest daughter, Bonnie. Was she willing to co-curate this exhibit? We needed the connections that she had. Family. Friends. Contemporaries and the people Mary had worked with. Fortunately, Bonnie said YES!

The Salmon Arm Museum’s Registrar of Collections, Erin Stodola, volunteered to do the interviews, edit them, and post them to SoundCloud.

One story gathered was courtesy of Phil McIntyre-Paul.

“Dr. Mary Thomas provided transformative wisdom and guidance when the Shuswap Trail Alliance was being formed.

[I met her at] early planning gatherings hosted at the Switzmalph Cultural Centre with Secwepemc and non-indigenous leaders from throughout the region.”

When Phil was asked, “what kind of impact did she have on your life?” he responded:

"During those gatherings Mary spoke passionately about how the land connects us and we have a responsibility to care for it. She spoke of the importance of young people, and how everything connects to the water. As she shared stories of Secwepemc trails, remember becoming deeply aware of how trails have been part of Secwepemc life for so many thousands of years, and how they connect people and communities with the land. Mary’s teaching led us to realize we were not trying to figure out how to build trails but how to build relationships – with each other and the land. She continued to press us to recognize that everything we do to the land we do to ourselves, and to think about that when we think about creating paths to walk along together.”

Phil really did get Dr. Mary Thomas.

The official unveiling occurred on June 25th –National Indigenous Day. An hour before we were to start, the sky darkened and poured buckets. We had to postpone the official tree planting and we missed Erika Seymour and her children drumming out of doors. Planting the tree was part of the ceremony–a Rocky Mountain Maple identified as culturally significant by Dr. Mary Thomas.

Elder Ethel Thomas. Bonnie Thomas looking on. Photograph courtesy  Len Lazzarotto

Undeterred, 107 people came to pay their respects and to honour and recognize the work Dr. Mary Thomas did. Elder Ethel Thomas, mentored by Dr. Mary, lead the prayer and Co-Curator Bonnie Thomas gave the welcome. It was not a political event. It was a cross-cultural collaboration. I hope Dr. Mary would have been proud.

This is exhibit is made possible by funding from the City of Salmon Arm’s Grants-in-Aid program administered by the Shuswap Community Foundation and the Okanagan Historical Society, Salmon Arm Branch.

The opening of the Switzmalph Centre
Left to right Ernie Philip, Alderman Phil Cave, and Dr. Mary Thomas

Image from the Salmon Arm Observer collection, archives room at R.J. Haney Heritage Village & Museum