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'We will be forever grateful': North Vancouver remembers a respected teacher and ally

COVID-19 victim Anton Kolstee was instrumental in promoting and protecting Indigenous culture

The story of how Dutch-born scholar, educator and honest-to-God rock star Anton Kolstee came to be given the ceremonial name “Skewk,” meaning the Raven, by Squamish Nation elders sums up the man fairly well.

The Raven is a powerful force in Squamish Nation culture, a hero of sorts, but also a known trickster who works its magic with a twinkle in the eye. Anton was well regarded by the elders, but that’s not the whole story of why Anton was given the name.

That story also involves a very real event that saw Anton literally dressed as a raven, devouring blackberries until he was covered in their deep, blood-red dye.

The setting for this spectacle was the performance of a play called Raven and the Blackberries, organized by Anton for Squamish Nation members and elders. The cast was made up of all Indigenous students plus Anton, a counsellor and teacher at Carson Graham Secondary who in the 1980s and '90s was a central figure in the school’s growth as a welcoming place for Indigenous culture and learning.

The raven in the play promises to guard a large cache of blackberries while a group of women are off picking more, but instead he devours them all. When the women return, he blames a rival tribe for stealing the berries, claiming that he fought ferociously to try to protect them.

Anton played his role with gusto, says Ian Campbell, a hereditary chief of the Squamish Nation and a current member of the nation’s elected council.

“He had blackberry juice all over his body and he was trying to convince them that it was the blood of his enemies, and that he was actually a brave warrior,” said Campbell with a laugh. “It made everyone chuckle the way he depicted that through the play, he was quite convincing in the role of Skewk.”

It was no accident that Anton was there – he’d devoted much of his life to becoming an ally to Indigenous people, even learning the Squamish language at a time when it was in danger of dying out. The play was another powerful example of his devotion to the culture.

“The elders took great joy in seeing this old legend being brought to life from our youth and from a non-native, a Dutchman, who spoke our language,” said Campbell. “They were quite intrigued by this. … I remember that day fondly. He had that look in his eye, that twinkle, where he sort of embodied the trickster.”

The death of the Raven

Jullian Kolstee and his family have said goodbye to his father Anton so many times, the word doesn’t quite seem right now that they are saying it for the very last time. Anton Kolstee was among the dozens of residents killed by the latest COVID-19 outbreak at West Vancouver’s Capilano Care Centre, a devastating result of the pandemic’s second wave.  

Anton passed away, at age 71, on the morning of Dec. 8. That day, Jullian penned a heartfelt tribute to his father that he shared on social media channels. It told the story of a most remarkable man.

Born in the Netherlands, Anton moved with his family to Vancouver when he was seven years old. As a teenager he gained local fame as the guitar player in a psychedelic rock band called the United Empire Loyalists, a group that opened for both the Grateful Dead and Cream when those monster bands swung through Vancouver.

Rock 'n' roll very nearly took Anton down a very different path than the family life he ended up living in North Vancouver, said Jullian. The story goes that as a young man, Anton was invited to Chicago to join a well-known electro-blues outfit called the Siegel-Schwall Band. Those plans were thwarted at the Canada-U.S. border when young Anton couldn’t produce the proper visa for someone heading to Chicago to go to work, even if his chosen profession involved wielding an electric guitar.

“That was basically fate, because if he had gone over the border, I definitely wouldn’t be here talking to you right now,” said Jullian. “He would have been a big successful rocker.”

Instead Anton took an academic turn, studying music at the University of British Columbia before getting a PhD in ethnomusicology at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. His academic studies and professional curiosity took him to far-flung corners of British Columbia where he lived with the Heiltsuk Nation of Bella Bella and the Nuxalk people of Bella Coola, learning and sharing their cultures, particularly through music.  

Along the way, Anton married Maribell Naturalli-Kolstee and the couple had two boys, first Johann and then six years later, Jullian. It was Anton’s job at Carson Graham that prompted the family to settle in North Vancouver, and it was also that job that brought Anton into the life of young Ian Campbell.

Under his wing

Going to high school in North Vancouver in the late 1980s and early '90s was a challenging prospect for Indigenous students, said Campbell.

“I’m the first generation out of Residential School in my family,” he said. “Attending Carson Graham wasn’t easy – our language and culture wasn’t really reflected in mainstream academic curriculum.”

One teacher who fought tirelessly to protect the Indigenous students and promote their culture was Anton Kolstee, said Campbell.

“Anton advocated for the Squamish language, he worked with our Elders to make that happen,” he said. “Just seeing his influence creating safe space for us to practise our culture and language and have that sense of belonging really made a difference. Because I was confronted with racism from certain teachers and students, and it was very difficult to comprehend why we were pitted with discrimination just for being Indigenous. But Anton certainly was a great presence in the school that allowed us to feel safe and flourish.”

This was long before there was a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, before any attempts to even acknowledge that settlers were living on unceded land. The last of Canada’s Residential Schools didn’t close until 1996.

“It was definitely a different world,” said Campbell. “We didn’t see the recognition of territory, or the acknowledgement of Indigenous peoples and the contributions we made to allow settlers to establish what is now B.C. and Canada.”

Anton was an early catalyst in that fight for reconciliation. He taught Indigenous mythology, language, drumming and singing at Carson Graham and helped share those traditions outside the school’s walls. He started a group called the Shaman Society Singers that collaborated with First Nations groups up and down the coast. Campbell was a member.

“We went out and shared these songs and dances publicly in performances,” he said. “That really opened me up to ambassadorship and being a diplomat and to go out and be a cultural ambassador and share the revitalization of our language and culture. I believe Anton was a real catalyst that allowed that space to get to where we are today, the progression of reconciliation.”

Campbell said he is proud to call Anton one of his first mentors, an influential person who helped shape him into the man he is today. On top of all he did to bridge cultural gaps, he was also a fun person to be around.

“Anton was cool. He had that persona as an artist, as an intellectual man, as a musician, and he sowed real integrity and patience,” said Campbell. “Anton really touched a lot of my relatives from the Squamish Nation and the Tsleil-Waututh Nation. Many of my peers that I went to school with, we’ve all been talking since his loss and reminiscing about how much of a positive impact Anton had on us, and we will be forever grateful for that.”

The Raven gets his name

The bestowing of a name is an important honour in the Squamish Nation. Anton was given his name by hereditary Chief Lawrence Baker. Baker was Ian Campbell’s grandfather – another vitally important mentor in Campbell’s life – and an educator who worked alongside Anton at Carson Graham.   

“My late grandfather felt it was fitting to bestow the name Skewk onto Anton, which is a high honour because the raven plays prominent in much of our mythology as a trickster,” said Campbell. “In our tradition, the bestowing of an ancestral name is something that we hold very sacred. It connects us to our lineage for our ancestors, that we are the direct descendants of a long line of ancestors and we have a duty and a responsibility to hold those names in high esteem and to conduct ourselves accordingly. So to be given a name as a non-Squamish person, such as Skewk, which is a very prominent name in our mythology, was something that Anton took very seriously and it was done through ceremony and with calling of witnesses and feasting. Anton was stood up and blanketed with this name, and he took that very seriously and he took great pride in that throughout his whole life. And I think he readily understood the significance of being adopted into the Squamish Nation by being covered with this name. He was now recognised and accepted as one of our family.”

Fly on, Raven

Anton’s remarkable story was sadly interrupted. In 1999, on Father’s Day, he suffered a massive heart attack which left him with severe brain damage. He and his family fought hard to regain what they could, but Anton was never the same.

For 18 years he lived in a North Vancouver assisted living home called Rufus House which is run by the North Shore Disability Resource Centre (“I’m not religious, but bless them,” said Jullian). His condition deteriorated in recent years though, and the family was heartened to find out that he would get a place in Capilano Care Centre, a long-term care home in West Vancouver, earlier this year. The timing of the move, however, couldn’t have been worse.

“He went in there the same week, if not the same day, that the pandemic was declared in mid-March,” said Jullian. “After that first week, we pretty much couldn’t see him. …I haven’t seen him in person up close since March, since I brought him in, which as you can imagine is a terrible feeling.”

Anton survived his life-altering heart attack, survived countless health scares in the years that followed, and survived the pandemic’s first wave. But he didn’t survive the second wave.

Following his father’s death, Jullian listened as he never had before as provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announced the latest COVID-19 casualties.  

“Every day it’s like a ritual for us,” he said. “We see or we hear the daily updates, the COVID numbers. And we hear about the number of people who have died, and it’s always sort of the same. Except for that day, it was my dad.”

It’s vitally important to remember that those numbers are not just numbers, they are people, said Jullian.

“COVID is very, very real to my family. I don’t know how else to say it,” he said. “It’s so important that we recognize, especially as a society, that this virus is real. It’s not theoretical, it’s not happening in a surreal world, it’s happening in the real world. And there are real people on the other side of those numbers.”

After years of fighting a battle against a catastrophic heart attack, it was a worldwide pandemic that brought the fight to an end.

“It was sort of poetic in a sense, but I wouldn’t want to search too deep and dig for meaning,” said Jullian. “I had 20 years to think about my dad passing away.”

But in a very real way, for Jullian at least, his father’s death has helped bring him back to life. Jullian was just eight years old when his dad suffered his heart attack. He can barely remember the man Anton was before.

Since his father’s death, Jullian has received countless messages from people who held his father in the highest regard. It’s like he’s meeting the man he never got to know.  

“The response has been overwhelming,” he said. “What’s so remarkable about my dad is the way that he’s remembered and the way that people honour him and the way that people respect him. … To me the enduring legacy is the lives he has touched and the impact he’s made on his community.”

It’s that legacy that he and his brother strive to carry on every day, said Jullian.

“He was, and definitely still is, my inspiration when it comes to trying to leave that kind of legacy and make that kind of impact. That’s definitely a big part of what I believe in and what drives me personally, and my brother.”

Jullian ended his tribute to his father with two words, now more powerful to him than ever: "Skewk soars."