Centuries ago, the benefit that’s about to be bestowed upon Nancy Turner would have allowed her to herd sheep through town, be drunk in public without the threat of arrest and be protected from naval conscription. These days, being honoured as a freeman of a municipality comes with more subtle perks.
“Apparently it gives you free parking, but of course we don’t have meters in Saanich. And they put you at the top of the voter’s list, but you don’t get any extra votes,” Mayor Frank Leonard said with a laugh. “So it’s pretty much ceremonial recognition.”
Turner, an ethnobotanist with 40 years of research and practical work in her field behind her, will receive the Freedom of the Municipality from Saanich on Saturday.
The honour is the highest that can be formally bestowed upon a citizen, and recognizes accomplishments and community contributions.
“She’s done great work for the municipality, not to mention her national and international recognition for what she does as a scientist,” Leonard said.
Ethnobotany, as described by Turner, is the study of the relationships between people and plants. As well, she studies ethnoecology, the study of the relationships between people and their environments.
Much of her work has stayed in B.C., where she spent countless months throughout her career living alongside First Nations communities and learning about their harvesting and processing of native plants.
“There’s often an impression that the only kind of knowledge is the western, academic, scientific knowledge. And yet, people who have lived for thousands of years in one place, they build up an amazingly rich knowledge and understanding of practices relating to those particular places,” Turner said. “Indigenous people have a lot to tell us about what’s happening out on the land and water. They see, every day, the changes at the local level, in the flowering of species, the appearances of birds, or what’s happening to the river. They’re more aware of these than most of us are.”
Turner has documented her work, namely what she’s been taught by First Nations elders, as a way to bridge the gap of understanding when it comes to ecology.
“The First Peoples here in British Columbia have always been called ‘hunter-gatherers’ in anthropology … but we’ve learned that there’s a whole new way of looking at the way people managed their environments and resources, and it’s a far more complex system than is implied in ‘hunter-gatherer,’” Turner said.
The 63-year-old environmental studies prof at the University of Victoria has lived in Saanich for most of her life, and has been given high honours in the past. Last year, she was appointed to the Order of Canada, while in 1999 she was appointed to the Order of B.C.
“I feel really honoured by this (freeman) recognition, but I prefer to look at it as a recognition of the wise teachers that I’ve had and the knowledge holders,” Turner said. “I see that as being the most important aspect of the honour.”
Turner will be named freeman at a ceremony June 18 at Saanich municipal hall (770 Vernon Ave.) at 11 a.m.
Freemen of Saanich
• George and Constance Pearkes (1968)
• Freeman King (1973)
• Les Passmore (1975)
• Hugh Keenleyside (1985)
• Bruce Hutchison (1990)
• Ken Middleton (1992)
• Hugh Curtis (2002)
• Ron Lou-Poy (2006)
• John Pendray (2006)