“We believe that a human is composed of two parts: the body which belongs to the Earth and is bound to the Earth and goes back to the Earth. And the spirit which belongs to the Universe and which is connected to everything and everyone and which goes back to everything.” From a eulogy by Ted Rohn, Greg Younging’s brother
Flags were lowered at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan Campus earlier this month in memory of Gregory Younging, who died in Penticton, B.C., on May 3 at the age of 58. Dr. Younging (formerly Young-Ing) helped to set the direction for Indigenous literature and publishing in Canada during his tenure as the long-time managing editor of the publishing house Theytus Books. Through Theytus, he supported an impressive roster of established and emerging writers, including Lee Maracle, Jordan Wheeler, Waubgeshig Rice, the late Inuit writer and artist Alootook Ipellie and Richard Van Camp.
Mr. Van Camp, who attended the En’owkin International School of Writing in Penticton in the early 1990s, had his work printed in Gatherings, a journal of Indigenous writing published by Theytus.
“When you look back at the Gatherings anthologies, so many of us were published by Greg and the guest editors in the nineties. This is where so many of us saw our names in print for the very first time with our poetry, prose, artwork,” Mr. Van Camp says.
In addition to being a photographer, editor, writer and poet, Dr. Younging was also a professor and co-ordinator of the Indigenous Studies program at the UBC Okanagan Campus and served as assistant director of research for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
“I think Indigenous literature(s) are in a robust state now, and only going to become more robust, because of the foundational work and thinking by Greg,” broadcast journalist Shelagh Rogers says. “Ultimately, I think he made people think deeply about Indigenous traditional knowledge and how it is shared in literature, both Indigenous and especially non-Indigenous. He also made it very clear that what was essential from the very beginning was building a relationship with the original storyteller or knowledge keeper, or the First Nation or Métis or Inuit person who shared the story.”
A member of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation in Manitoba, Gregory Ing was born March 18, 1961, in Halifax. His parents met in the Canadian military, where his father, George Ing, now retired, was an electrical engineer and his mother, Rosalyn Ing – who was a renowned educator and Residential School researcher prior to her retirement – was a fighter control operator with the Royal Canadian Air Force.
“Greg is a child of many traditions. Our father’s family is Chinese, our mother’s family is Cree,” his younger brother, Ted Rohn, noted in his eulogy. “Our dad was a military man, and Greg was raised in Europe. He never really connected with his heritage as a boy, so when he started university at Carleton, I think he found a great solace in meeting other Indigenous friends and finally feeling a part of something – the traditions of our people.”
At Carleton University, Dr. Younging earned a bachelor of arts and master of arts from the Institute of Canadian Studies (now called the School of Indigenous and Canadian Studies). During this time, he worked with Indigenous organizations, co-organized a national Indigenous youth conference and belonged to an Indigenous writers group that organized multiarts performances in Ottawa-Hull, featuring slide shows of Dr. Younging’s photography as well as music and spoken-word poetry by group members including Joseph A. Dandurand, Anne Acco, Armand Ruffo, Mr. Ipellie and Allen DeLeary’s band, Seventh Fire.
Dr. Younging’s spoken-word performance of his poem Bury My Heart, with music by Seventh Fire, was released on the Juno Award-winning 1991 compilation, Till The Bars Break. His collection of poetry was published as a limited-edition chapbook, The Random Flow of Blood and Flowers, in 1992, and under the same title as an expanded book-length version in 1996.
After his studies at Carleton, Dr. Younging moved to Penticton in 1990 to work with his mentor and auntie, Jeannette Armstrong, as the managing editor of Theytus Books, the first Indigenous publisher in Canada. Dr. Younging was hugely influential during his time there, from 1990 to 2004 and again from October, 2015, until his death.
In 2018, Dr. Younging was awarded the Association of Book Publishers of British Columbia’s annual Gray Campbell Distinguished Service Award, recognizing individuals who have made a significant contribution to the book-publishing industry in the province, “for his advocacy for Indigenous editorial agency in Canadian publishing.”
“What he was constantly about was building up Indigenous writing in North America. That was creativity building, as poet and editor, but also infrastructure building,” Canadian historian Christopher Hugh Moore, a two-time Governor-General’s Literary Award winner, wrote on his blog.
“His recent book Elements of Indigenous Style: A Guide for Writing By and About Indigenous Peoples was one example. (Note the ambition in the allusion to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style). But so was his energetic campaigning, in Canada and globally, for creators’ rights and particularly for the legal recognition and protection of TK, traditional knowledge.”
While in B.C., Dr. Younging raised two daughters, Nimkish and Aisha, and earned a master of publishing degree from Simon Fraser University, and a PhD in educational studies from the University of British Columbia. In 2007, he joined the department of Community, Culture, and Global Studies at UBC Okanagan. There, he was instrumental in developing the Indigenous Studies program at the Irving K. Barber School of Arts and Sciences. His research interests included traditional knowledge, intellectual-property rights, Indigenous literatures, Indigenous arts, Indigenous rights and the United Nations.
In 2010, he accepted a part-time secondment to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as assistant director of research, a role he held until 2012. He planned, commissioned and managed the editing of consultant research projects and was a member of the writing team for They Came for the Children: Canada, Aboriginal Peoples, and the Residential Schools, as well as the commission’s interim and final reports.
“My family really encouraged me to do this work,” he said in a profile in UBC’s 2010-11 annual report. “We have a matrilineal tradition, so if my mother and aunties say I should do this, then I have to do it.”
By all accounts, the TRC work exacted a huge toll.
“Greg was horrified by the stories that came out. Traumatised by them,” his brother says. “Stories of what happened to strangers he never knew. Stories of what happened to the family that raised him. The blood memory. He finished the work, out of his sense of duty, but he carried the burden of this blood memory and this trauma for the rest of his life.”
In all of his work, whether it was related to Indigenous publishing, his work with the UN World Intellectual Property Organization on Indigenous traditional knowledge and intellectual-property rights, or Indian residential-school research, “Greg saw things before the rest of us did. He had such a quicksilver intelligence and such deep compassion,” journalist Ms. Rogers says. “He was a visionary.”
To his daughters and others who knew him, he was, above all, a devoted, proud father. “Yes, my father did many amazing things in his life,” Nimkish wrote online after his death. “People will always remember him for these things. And it was very important to him that he be remembered for these things. But all of that aside, he was simply my dad. He raised me alone and still managed all of it. He was also a big brother, a loving son, and one hell of a friend. He always took care of his friends. He always took care of me.”
“Aisha and I are truly devastated,” she wrote. “I know my dad’s done great things, and people keep saying that … but the greatest thing he ever did for me was be my dad.”
Dr. Younging leaves his daughters; parents, George and Rosalyn; brother, Ted Rohn and Ted’s husband, Sascha Rohn.
“He always raised up the people around him, and he didn’t seek attention for himself,” University of Manitoba professors Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair and Warren Cariou wrote in a message to Dr. Younging’s family. “We will remember Greg as a humble leader, one who didn’t care about hierarchies but instead cared about helping the people around him find their voices, allowing them to truly contribute in their own best possible ways.”
“I think of him and I see the incandescence of his intelligence in his eyes,” Ms. Rogers says. “He was a great teacher, beautiful and humble.”
When Dr. Younging began his spirit journey on May 3, he was surrounded by family and the love of friends who had inundated the hospital with calls and posted messages online. His father spoke to him while his daughter Nimkish held his hand and sang to him, much like he had sung her to sleep as a child.
“He found peace in the surrender,” brother Ted wrote online. “We washed him in cedar water and prayed for his spirit.”
“On the first night, he travelled to the Sky World. He rested, lit a fire and ate a meal,” Ted said in his eulogy. “On the second night, he travelled to the Star World. That night, we watched from his balcony as the night sky lit up and danced with his energy. The third night, he travelled to the place where the waters are. There, our ancestors met him and greeted him and showed him how to cross the waters. On the final night – last night – the ancestors took him into the dark. They had to leave him, this part of the journey he had to take on his own. Alone, he followed the light through the Dark World, and made his final crossing over into the light and into the love.”
Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm was a friend and associate of Greg Younging.