Acclaimed artist honoured for his community leadership

West Coast artist Roy Henry Vickers felt honoured and surprised "to be here so far from home" accepting an honorary doctor of letters from York on Wednesday. So, before hundreds of graduating education students and their friends and families, he intoned an ancient prayer and centred himself.

Vickers is a gifted and internationally acclaimed painter and sculptor, a writer, a recognized leader in the First Nations community, and a tireless spokesperson for recovery from addictions and abuse. "His passion is evident in everything he does," said Paul Axelrod, York’s dean of Education, in his introduction.

Left: Roy Henry Vickers. Photo by CSi/

Among the 61-year-old artist’s major works is the 30-foot Salmon Pole sculpted for the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria, BC. His paintings and prints have been presented as official gifts to Queen Elizabeth, Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton. And his art can also be found in private and public collections and galleries around the world, including the Canadian Museum of Civilization, the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology, the McMichael Canadian Art Collection and the National Museum of Japan.

The founder of Vision Quest, a non-profit organization designed to help those with addictions, and a director of the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards, Vickers has received many awards and honours for his art and his community leadership. The Northwest Coast First Nations has given him a hereditary chieftainship. Maclean’s magazine included him as the first artist ever in its 1994 Annual Honour Roll of Extraordinary Canadian Achievers. In 1998, he received the Order of British Columbia and in 2003, the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal.

Of mixed native and English ancestry, Vickers grew up in small villages on the West Coast. The son of a fisherman and a schoolteacher, he was the first in his village to graduate from high school. He intended to join the RCMP because he loved horses and envisioned a life touring with the Musical Ride but was rejected because he was colourblind. So he became an artist. "I’m glad I chose a profession I’m passionate about," said Vickers, who’s still prolific at 61. "Art would have been a hobby if I’d done something else. It’s a joy to get paid to do what I love."

Success came quickly for Vickers after high school and at the age of 45 he buckled. "I found myself in May 1992 looking to end my life." With support from family and friends, he gave up drinking alcohol and eventually founded Vision Quest, to help others fight addiction.

As an artist and a community leader, Vickers has learned to speak publicly about his life experiences. "Chief Dan George said, ‘Roy, when you speak, speak from your heart. If you speak from your heart, hearts will hear you. If you speak from your head, heads will leave you. And sometimes when you get old the head forgets, but the heart never forgets."

Vickers shared other lessons he has learned along his life’s journey.

"Hard work always produces results," he said.

"You are at the centre of your family. Your family is at the centre of your community. Your community is at the centre of your country. Your country is at the centre of the world. What you do makes a difference in the world," he said.

"If you work hard to make a difference for what is good, for what is loving, for what is kind, for what is truthful, you will always be happy," he said. "No job, no amount of money, nothing can take that happiness away from you."