‘She looked after a lot of people’: Beloved ‘Namgis elder, Lilly Whonnock, dies of COVID-19

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 Whonnock, daughter of Lilly Whonnick, was sitting bedside with her mother when Lilly, an elder-in-residence at two Vancouver post-secondary instutions, died of COVID-19. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

‘Renowned leader’

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.”

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.

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.

Linda Whonnock and her son, Alvin Stevens, both got COVID-19 around the same time as Lilly. Stevens ended up in the intensive care unit, but now both mother and son have recovered and are at home mourning Lilly’s death together. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

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.

The Early Edition7:28Passing of Namgis elder a loss for more than just her family and nation

Linda Whonnock speaks with Stephen Quinn about the passing of her mother Lilly from covid-19. 7:28

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