How I Made It

Cynthia Dick, Chief Councillor

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How I Made community builder Cynthia Dick stands outside in front of a tree

Cynthia Dick; Tseshaht First Nation

Let’s say we’ve just met at a cocktail party. How would you describe, in a nutshell, what you do?

I am the Chief Councillor for the Tseshaht First Nation. Tseshaht is one of 14 Nuu-chah-nulth Nations on Vancouver Island. It’s an elected position under the Band Council structure set out by the Indian Act. In addition to my position, Tseshaht has eight other elected council members. It is not a hereditary chieftainship that follows our Tseshaht traditional governance; the structure is similar to a municipal government (with a mayor and council). Our main government-to-government relationship is with the federal government; however, our Nation also does a lot of work with the provincial government and at times the municipal government. As Chief Councillor, my main priority is to ensure we are making the best-informed decisions for all of our members—around 1,194 people—as well as our next generations and our traditional territories.

Where did you go to school and what did you study?

I went to school at Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo, B.C. In 2014, I graduated with a bachelor of arts with a major in sociology and minor in psychology.

What was your first paying gig out of school? (In your field, or not.)

I always found myself drawn to positions in education. While finishing my degree, I began working as the post-secondary counsellor for the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council and eventually started working with kindergarten to grade 12 students as well as post-secondary students as the Pathways Student Success supervisor for the Tribal Council.

What was your BIG step into leadership? How did you land it?

My big step into leadership was definitely this new role as Chief Councillor. My goal was never to land this position. I remember the moment I decided to be a part of the change. I was at a community meeting and it took everything in me to stand up and address the council on the importance of community engagement in the decision-making process. However, I felt minimized and brushed off. I knew at that moment that I wanted to run for Tseshaht Council and my goal was to ensure that I would never make anyone feel the way I did that day—as if my opinion didn’t matter. My goal was to ensure the community had a voice in the important decisions that were being made and they knew they were being heard.

Describe the moment in which you first realized, I think this is actually going to work out?

One of the first tasks put in front of me was to lobby for provincial funding for the expansion of haahuupayak school (an on-reserve school for kindergarten through grade seven). I remember standing up and speaking to the B.C. Ministry of Education in front of a room full of people. I was speaking about the injustices of First Nations history in education, specifically residential schools, the remaining struggles of inequity in the education system for First Nations students and the vision of how education has the potential to create meaningful reconciliation for Aboriginal people. I was nervous and while I was speaking, the energy in the room was one I cannot explain, but when I was done, I had a feeling of great satisfaction in knowing that I had been heard. As I was speaking, I remember thinking, “Yes, this is where I need to be.”

What would you say has been your biggest failure or shortcoming, career-wise, to date? How did you bounce back?

Not doing my research on politics. I remember my very first meeting, minutes after being appointed to this position, and thinking, “What did I just get myself into?” It has been a huge learning curve over the past year. In a sense my biggest shortcoming has also been a blessing. I honestly think that if I had researched politics ahead of time, I wouldn’t be sitting where I am today. I might instead have chosen to stay away, which indirectly would have been to accept the status quo rather than being a part of the change I wanted to see.

Name one piece of career advice you always give.

Don’t limit yourself based on other people’s expectations. Whatever path you take, be true to yourself.

What’s the worst career advice you’ve ever gotten?

That maybe it’s not the time for young people to be taking on these roles. That we could walk away from these positions and come back in a number of years and maybe things will be different and people will be ready for us. Although I understand the frustration, now that I am here, after seeing the work that needs to be done I know that I have a responsibility to help carry that workload.

Did you deal with barriers in your field because you are a woman? If so, what were they?

There are definitely a lot of barriers in these positions. Being not only the first woman Chief Councillor for the Tseshaht First Nation, but also the youngest. has been a barrier in itself. I know there are many people that continue to question my qualifications for this position and refuse to work with me because of it. I’ve been asked “why politics?” on numerous occasions and been told that I don’t fit the stereotype for the position. I’m very fortunate in that I come from a long line of very strong and resilient Indigenous women. Regardless of the barriers put in front of me, I am not discouraged to overcome them.

Are you making a fair income for your work? Why or why not? Do you have another job for extra cash? If so, what is it?

Fair income? It really depends on how you look at it. No, if you consider what politicians get paid when working with provincial or federal governments. Yes, if you look at comparisons to other First Nations in B.C. with similar positions. I do not have another job. I’m a single mother to a five-year-old girl and any time I am not working is spent with her. I’m grateful for the position that I’m in. Although it means more time spent away from my daughter without a significant increase in pay, it is meaningful for me to work with my community and gives me the opportunity to help build a strong foundation for my daughter, as well as our younger and future generations.

What’s the worst stereotype you’ve heard about millennials at work?

That we don’t take the time to listen and learn. The biggest issue I find is that you can only learn or hear as much as people are willing to share with you. I think there is a huge generational gap in knowledge and if we don’t work to bridge that gap we are at risk of losing an extensive amount of valuable teachings and knowledge.

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