Carving a future: Chief Bryce Williams talks about his vision
The young Chief of the Tsawwassen First Nation peers out from beneath a round-brimmed straw hat, his face as stoic and impassive as his carvings.
Suddenly, the corners of his mouth give way, his eyes crinkle and he breaks into a warm and cheery grin. If there's anything 23-year-old Bryce Williams loves to talk about, it's his artwork.
"Sometimes I'll be working on a piece and it's just cool to see it develop and come alive in front of your face" he says, peering at a totem he carved from Haida Gwaii yellow cedar. "It seems like you're getting into a bit of a trance."
Williams, elected in early September, says he wants to share aboriginal art with his people. There is a spiritual connection that comes with taking part in cultural traditions.
"It feels good to fish the waters that our ancestors have for thousands of years," he says in his calm, unhurried tone. "Just to be out there on the water, you get this feeling, this sense of pride of who you are and where you come from."
Williams grew up on the tiny reserve just north of the ferry terminal, a childhood he describes as free and full of exploration. He enjoyed visiting family in Haida Gwaii for potlatches, events which further instilled a sense of connection to his people and history.
It was at the memorial for his grandfather, Victor Adams, on Haida Gwaii when 6-year-old Williams received his ancestral name Yaahl Iiwaans, meaning "Big Raven."
Perhaps it was fate then, that Williams went on a field trip with his Grade 11 Delta Secondary class to the Vancouver Art Gallery, which was showing a collection entitled, "Raven Traveling: A Century of Haida Art."
His inspiration flourished from there, and his art teacher Norm Buchko let him experiment with aboriginal art themes, including a wall mural.
When he graduated in 2007, Williams decided to move to Haida Gwaii to live with his grandmother. He met what would be his life's mentor on his very first day, master Haida carver Christian White.
"He said, 'Bryce, if you're going to join me, you're going to have to join my dance group,'" recalls Williams.
Williams says it didn't take long before he was completely immersed in a new spiritual journey. Over the next two years he carved, danced, and apprenticed as a Haida artist. He has fond memories of sitting in White's carving shop watching the master bring a mask to life.
"It's just amazing to see how fast he works and he inspired me to think I'd love to be up to his calibre one day."
Williams was just 19 when he was elected to TFN's legislature in 2009. It was a life-changing decision between staying in Haida Gwaii and going home.
"I got the call when I was carving in the shed and I had to decide within the first few minutes," he says, though the tougher choice was deciding whether to sit in the legislature or accept an executive council role, as was his right when he finished in the top four in the popular vote.
But if people think Williams' age is an anomaly, he's actually the norm. The chief he unseated, 42-year-old Kim Baird, was just 22 herself when she entered politics, and 29 when she took on the leadership of the community.
"It's in our blood, I guess," she says laughing.
Baird has overseen some of the most momentous changes in the history of her people, spearheading an historic treaty in 2007 that doubled their land claim to 400 hectares, and received aboriginal fishing rights.
Each significant milestone in the treaty process has a connection to one of her three daughters. When the treaty was announced in the legislature in 2007, she was invited to go through the front doors with her then four-year-old daughter Amy.
"It was one of those unforgettable moments," she says, smiling.
Her daughter Sophia was born three days after she initialed the treaty, becoming the first "treaty baby." And her youngest daughter Naomi was born three weeks after the effective date in April, 2009, becoming the first baby born under TFN's new treaty government.
Baird says each chief has built on the good work of the previous one. She recalls that the road was paved under the chieftainship of Tony Jacobs, who was leader in the late-'80s and early-'90s.
Jacobs, now 56, was the same age as Williams when he became chief, and a councillor even prior to that. Re-elected to the legislature in September, Jacobs says he saw plenty of tumultuous times as chief.
Jacobs says the big question in the '80s among chiefs in Canada was the land question and securing treaty rights.
"The most exciting thing for me to see is the building of our government, not relying on the Indian Act, having our own legislation," he says.
One of the reasons he got into politics was not only because he wanted more rights for his people, but to fight the pervasive prejudice experienced by First Nations peoples.
"My grandpa talked to me about not being able to talk to a lawyer. My father went to World War Two, came back, and wasn't allowed to vote."
Canadians today are coming to terms with its dark history of treatment of aboriginals. Jacobs cites the residential schools where children were seized by the state and forced to give up their traditions and culture.
It's a sore subject for Kim Baird.
"When we were invisible and not exercising our rights, people were fine with us being here," she says. "But once we started working for fishing rights and things like that, the [racism] began coming out."
She believes the Indian Act subjugated First Nations people politically, legally, economically, and then Canadians blame the chiefs for not bringing their people out of poverty.
Even when the Tsawwassen negotiated self-governance in 2007 there was opposition from non-aboriginals, which she says demonstrated racism hasn't disappeared.
Baird and Jacobs believe now that a legal framework exists to protect the Tsawwassen, Williams' plan of a cultural renaissance can move forward.
"He has the drum, he has the song, and he has the strength of his parents and grandparents to teach him the ways in how to be a good leader," says Jacobs.
Williams wants to bring a strong sense of Tsawwassen culture back to his people, something he feels was lacking.
"I respect her and she's done a lot of great work around here," he said in an earlier interview. "But I think that I can be a stronger cultural leader."
Williams says it took some time to appreciate and understand his people and wishes he'd had more time with his grandfather, Russell Williams, who is also a former chief. He passed away in 2009.
"It kind of hurt because I could have learned a lot from him… but that's life," says Williams solemnly. "You can't change that."
Nevertheless, Williams says it's important to let the outside world know about people like his grandfather, his people, and their history. He intends to accomplish that with a carving shed, canoe club, and dance troupe. Baird says the traditional longhouse, built in 1999, has been an important part of cultural revival.
"For the first time in living memory we have our kids singing Tsawwassen songs again," she says.
But Baird says it will take a full community commitment for the Tsawwassen culture to be fully revived. And she says that community supports their new, young chief.
"Sure, there might be a lot of weight on my shoulders," says Williams. "But it goes back to the support I have and I know I have a strong mind and a strong heart and I'll be able to move our nation forward with the help of the community."