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What It's Like to Be a First Nations Chief Councillor

In our 9–5 series, we ask boss babes what a day in the office entails. This week, Cynthia Dick, the youngest and first-ever female chief councillor for British Columbia's Tseshaht First Nation, gives us a glimpse into her grind

Homepage option 2Age: 27

Education: Bachelors of Arts in sociology and psychology from Vancouver Island University

Length of time at current gig: One month (she was elected on May 19!)

When you were in university, what did you want to be? I was really back and forth with it all. My first year, I just took a lot of different courses like anthropology, psychology and criminology. I found my passion in sociology. I liked how it was about equality for everyone, the social injustice that is present today, and how we can change things.

Was that something you could relate to personally? Yes, definitely. I remember I took a “Sociology of Race and Ethnicity” course and one of the first activities the instructor had us do was to anonymously write down how we’re affected by race and discrimination. It was surprising to see how people were still so racist. I realized it’s not because people choose to live that way, it’s mostly because they’re uneducated on the matter.

What is the Tseshaht community like? We have over 1,100 members, however not all of them live in Port Alberni, B.C. on the Tseshaht reserve. A lot of them are off-reserve members. The Tseshaht community is really hard to explain if you’re not a part of it. The community is very strongly connected and that’s the way it is with Nuu-chah-nulth people [the First Nations tribes of western Vancouver Island]. The Nuu-chah-nulth has a saying: “hishukish ts’awalk,” and it means we are all one and interconnected and that applies to people, the land, and everything. For instance, we just had our first “Community Fish Day,” where fishermen let their nets down and then anywhere from 20 to 50 community members went in and pulled them out together. The fish caught that day was distributed among the community members that don’t have the opportunity to go out and fish on their own.

What does the Chief Councillor do? Our hereditary chiefs, who we call the Ha’wiih, are born into their roles. The nine elected council positions are the leadership for the Nation and are involved with pretty much everything and anything to do with Tseshaht. We are the ones on the political front, lobbying and negotiating with the government for things that we need. My role, chief councillor, is a full-time position and it’s the head council position. The eight councillors are not full-time. Each of them has a portfolio (such as education, fisheries and housing) and they deal with those meetings and committees and make the decisions for those specific programs.

How did you first get involved with the council? My first experience was when I was younger, on the Tseshaht Youth Council, which was made up of kids around 12 to 18. I later started working as the Tseshaht First Nation as the office manager, doing the recording for the community and internal meetings. That got me interested in learning more about what is going on for our Nation. After I left the position, I still kept going to the community meetings and people started asking me if I was going to run for council.

What made you decide to run? I don’t think it was one thing. It was just my experience and finding my voice, feeling that I had something to offer and contribute to council. I think the community support was there, so I felt like I could step up and be a part of this council during this term.

First Female First Nations Chief Councillor

Chief councillor Cynthia Dick (bottom left) with the rest of the Tseshaht council

What does an average day look like for you? This has been a very busy transition period. I’ve been going to the office for 8 a.m. and then my day is usually filled with meetings—whether it’s with staff or outside organizations—and then we’ve had a lot of community meetings in the evening, around 6 to 8 p.m. It will slow down in the summer since people are really busy with fishing [Tseshaht’s primary industry].

What are some challenges that the Tseshaht community faces that you want to address? Community engagement, definitely. I feel like a lot of people became discouraged to participate at the community level, and I really want to encourage them to get back to that because the issues that we’re discussing and addressing affect all of them, so I want them to have an equal say. I’m hoping to increase engagement by being more transparent, allowing people to ask me questions and being as open as I can with the answers.

How do you stay connected to your culture? I attended our Haahuupayak Elementary School from kindergarten to grade 6, which included a First Nations studies course on our culture, dance, songs, art, and language. But after, there wasn’t a whole lot of support for our culture in the public school system. I really had a hard time, feeling that I was lost at that point. In university, I started taking First Nations studies and getting back in touch with my roots. I learned about all of Nuu-chah-nulth cultures, 14 Nations out of the 203 in B.C., and saw that even though we’re different, we have so many similarities. I continued taking courses when I returned to my community, like language courses through the University of Victoria, and that helped as well because the language is who we are as a people.

How do you hope to help future Tseshaht generations keep the culture alive? The number one thing is instilling a sense of pride of where we come from, and that’s going to take the whole community. We need to find a way to support our children so that’s never lost.

What are some misconceptions your community faces that you’d like to combat? Because some people are uneducated about aboriginal issues, they think we’re all the same, and that’s not the case. We have our neighbouring Nations and we have similarities that connect us, but so many differences.

Do you work with the other First Nations communities? Yes, we do, on a lot of different levels. I attended a meeting where it was the 14 Nuu-chah-nulth chiefs at the table. I’ve also attended a meeting of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, which is made up of the representatives from around the province.

Being so young and also Tseshaht’s first female chief councillor, how are you received? I’ve had a lot of community support, however, there will always be people who question if you’re capable of filling that position. I think I’ve been doing what’s necessary to show them that, yes, I am.

What’s your favourite part of your job? Anything that involves my community. Like last night, I had a community meeting. People have so much to offer, but a lot of the times they feel like they’re not heard. So for me to be there, hear what the members want, and then know what to work towards is great.

What attributes does a First Nations woman need to be chief councillor? They need to be passionate about working for their people.

Who is someone in this field that you admire? My cousin Lisa. Eight years ago, when she was 19, she decided she was going to run for council and ended up getting on and serving as a councillor. I remember people saying, “She’s so young,” but she had so much to offer and she was willing to put it all out there.

How do you unwind at the end of a long day? Cuddling with my four-year-old daughter.

As the first female and youngest chief councillor, what do you want your legacy to be? I don’t want it to end with me. I want more people to stand up and use their voice, more people to get involved. I want women to feel comfortable in these roles to create a brighter future for our people.

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