New Tsawwassen chief puts big emphasis on culture
When word got out on election night that a 23-year-old member of the Tsawwassen First Nation had unseated long-time Chief Kim Baird, the reaction was largely shock.
Chief-elect Bryce Williams acknowledges his youthful success with a hearty laugh.
"I guess it doesn't happen that often around too many other reserves or treaty nations," he said Friday morning (Sept. 7) in his first post-election interview. "But I know it's a big, significant change and I'm ready to step up my role as leader."
Williams won by a narrow margin, earning 78 votes to Baird's 69. In total, 260 people were eligible to vote from the community's population of 439—a voter participation rate of 57 per cent.
"I had a feeling it was going to be close, and obviously at the time of the election I was pretty surprised to finally see the results," said the new chief, adding it was a personal decision to run and, despite his youth, he has gained valuable experience from sitting on TFN's executive council for the past three years.
Williams said he was also involved in working on the landmark Tsawwassen treaty agreement—something widely credited to Baird's leadership—before it was signed.
"I think that was a key part to building up my role as a leader and that's why I gained a lot of respect from people to put me in this position," he said.
Williams, whose aboriginal name is Yaahl Iiwaans, wants to bring a strong sense of Tsawwassen culture back to his people, something he feels was lacking under the leadership of Baird.
"I respect her and she's done a lot of great work around here," he said. "But I think that I can be a stronger cultural leader."
Baird was chief of the Tsawwassen for 13 years, and was herself elected to council in her 20s. Now 42, she's handing over the seat to the next generation.
The Williams family have strong historical ties to the community. The new chief's cousin Sheila Williams was elected to the executive council during the recent election as well.
His grandfather, Russell Williams, was a former chief and council member from 2003-2008 and passed away just before the historic treaty was signed.
"He had a strong voice for the community and he liked to stand up for people's rights," he said, lamenting he didn't get to know his grandfather as much as he would have liked.
Williams said he grew up on the reserve, but after graduating from high school, he moved to Haida Gwaii to learn carving. He mentored under master Haida carver Christian White.
"I owe a lot to him, he's a good friend and strong supporter of keeping our culture alive."
Williams, who has been carving for five years now, said he hasn't had as much time for art since joining politics, but has dreams of bringing Tsawwassen culture back by creating a carving shed and a canoe club.
Tradition is very important to him as well. He doesn't like term Coast Salish and says many Tsawwassen go by the name "Squama" (spelled xʷəlməxʷ).
He said the recent Elder's Gathering in Abbotsford was an inspiring cultural experience.
"Just hearing all the fellow Squama nation drumming, hearing their power, feeling their power. That's what I want to be a part of."
As for this big sea change in leadership, Williams said he'll continue with current development projects—two large shopping malls and a residential complex—which will help fund the First Nation government and provide jobs for its people.
Williams has a message for his people, too: "We're still here, we're still a strong nation. We haven't gone anywhere."