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Squamish Nation set to vote in new council in historic election

'I think it's really important that the community elect people who are going to be respectful and hardworking and committed to working together as a team for our people'
Sept. 26 will be a historic day for Squamish Nation, with election governance changes set to take effect for the first time in 40 years in the Squamish Nation general council election. | Jennifer Thuncher, Squamish Chief files

It’s almost time for Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation) to elect its next council.

Sept. 26 will be a historic day for the Nation, with election governance changes set to take effect for the first time in 40 years in the Squamish Nation general election.

In 2018, the Nation's membership voted in a referendum to approve significant governance and election changes. Up until then, the election laws hadn’t been changed since 1981.

Now, members will only vote in eight councillors, instead of 16 general councillors. The new council will have one chairperson, instead of two co-chairs, a band manager, four general councillors, and a dedicated Squamish Valley councillor and a regional councillor for members living outside of the North Shore and Squamish Valley.

The nomination process also changed, along with members being nominated to the electoral commission, they now have to submit at least 94 sponsorship signatures from membership, candidate statements, and supply criminal record checks, a resume, reference letters, and their driver's abstract to be selected. Previously, the only requirements to run for a council position included being a member over 18 years old and being nominated.  

The new laws also allow members living off-reserve to be nominated, as well as members as young as 18.

Only seven of the previous 16 elected councillors are seeking re-election, leaving space for newcomers to take a seat. Chief Ian Campbell and spokesperson Chris Lewis are among the councillors stepping down.

While many positions are still to be decided, the council’s first chairperson – to be decided by voters in the future instead of council – has been filled by acclamation by Khelsilem (Dustin Rivers) as he was the only member nominated for the position.

'We need to really listen to our community' 

As the next council chairperson, Khelsilem’s first priority is the community.

After serving one term on council, Khelsilem said one of the biggest challenges had been “the dynamic” during the pandemic.

“When we're not interacting face to face, when we're not hearing from people on the regular, and we're not getting that personal feedback ... It can feel like leadership is off in their own world and disconnected from the real-world issues that are facing our people," he said.

"The pandemic, I think, has put a really big barrier to leadership being able to spend time with our people in a way that we used to.”

Khelsilem said he was looking to change that and hoped improvements in the COVID-19 pandemic would help.

“I think that I really want to work with the next term of council to really listen to our community to find out what their priorities are, and then focus on those priorities,” he said, ahead of the election. “There's a lot of opportunities for the Squamish people and the Squamish Nation and we really need to continue to set ourselves up to be able to seize those opportunities.”

Over the years, Khelsilem has been known for his focus on reviving the Squamish language, climate justice, social democracy, and gender equity. He said he had gained significant insights into the functions and areas for improving the Nation as an organization during his time on council, and while sitting on many boards, and believed he "had a lot to offer" in the position. 

Power in numbers 

He is also part of Vote Together, four councillors seeking re-election including Tiyáltelut (Kristen Rivers), Orene Askew and Joyce Williams, who are running as a slate. They were elected in December 2017 in a landslide win, some earning the most votes of any candidate. They were elected with a slate of eight new Councillors in one of the biggest changes in leadership in Squamish Nation history.

Khelsilem said the group was running together to be able to continue to make real change for their community.

“By voting for all of us, you're guaranteed that the things that we promised, you’re going to get it,” he said, highlighting that the group accomplished 11 promises they made in the last election over the past four years.

“We're going to come up with our platform and offer some really bold commitments to our community.”

Vote Together are proud of a number of achievements in their last term, including successfully advocating for a Living Wage at the Squamish Nation, benefiting 70 lower-paid employees, making council meetings more accessible and transparent to members,  introducing community consultation on annual Squamish Nation budgets, and creating advisory committees to increase community member participation in council decisions.

The group’s work has also included leading the development of the Hiy̓ám̓ Housing Society that secured funding from the province for a 94-unit affordable housing project. They also advocated and supported the successful designation of three sites for 400 affordable homes and over the past three and half years, they have helped steer the $20-billion Senakw development in Vancouver. They also helped create the new Squamish Nation assistance with rent program.

“You know, sometimes with politicians, they talk about things that they're going to do, and it doesn't get done or even started,” Askew, A.K.A DJ O Show, who is running for a general council position, said.

“I'm really proud of the things that we were able to do.”

Khelsilem said priorities of Vote Together included “going faster and harder” on building more affordable housing, bringing more revenue in for the community through economic development and supporting the education of the community.  

“We want to continue to find those innovative ideas to solutions to challenges that our people are facing,” he said.

Askew – a mentor, motivational speaker, DJ, and hip-hop artist – added that, with strong ties to the performing arts, she’d like to use her “unique” Afro-Indigenous Two Spirit voice to continue advocating for the nation’s youth for grants and opportunities that allow them to reach their goals and be put them in the spotlight. She said she’d also like to restart a Youth Advisory Council to give young people a chance to have more of a say on council decisions.

Askew, along with Wilson Williams, Debbie (Deborah) Baker, who are all seeking re-election, will be running for one of the four positions as general councillor against newcomers Clarissa Antone, Sempúlyan Stewart Gonzales, Victoria L. Michels (nee: Baker), Latash Maurice Nahanee, JP Spence, and former councillors Ann Whonnock Syexwaliya and Chief Dick Williams.

Meanwhile, Tiyáltelut, council-co chair,  who is running for re-election as a regional councillor,“hopes to bring equity to members living away from the community,” if elected, with over half of the Nation’s members living off-reserve.

She will go up against newcomers Glenn Campo, Valerie Margaret (Newbreast) and George Tiyáltelut for the new position. The new role of Squamish Valley councillor will be between Deanna Lewis and Williams, both nominated for a second term.

Newcomers Shayla Jacobs and Ray Natraoro are running for the new position of North Shore councillor and the band manager role has been filled by acclamation by Bianca Cameron (nee: Joseph).

Making way for future leaders

This will be the last election run for Khelsilem, Rivers and Askew. In 2017, they committed to serving only two terms.

“We have many, many wonderfully talented, insightful, caring people in our community that I think would be wonderful in a leadership role,” Khelsilem said. “I want to create space for others, and support others in being able to take their turn in this role.”

Askew added that she thought eight years is “long enough to make your footprint,” and part of the reason she decided to run this term was to help guide youth into future leadership roles.

“I had a talk with some of our youth who were really concerned about where the Nation is going, and their voices not being heard,” she said.

“So I thought, well OK – I have to try [to get elected], because my main goal is to try to mentor youth even more to get into the governance of our Nation because I feel like a lot of young people are scared of it.

“I've learned so much, and I feel like I have a lot of knowledge to pass down to the youth.”

'Your vote does matter'

Both Askew and Khelsilem encouraged members to cast their votes.

“I don’t want to sound cliché, but your vote does matter,” Askew said. “You're contributing to your community and the people who are going to be the leadership of the Nation.”

Khelsilem added, “I think there are lots of really good candidates that have put their name forward.”

“The main thing is, I think it's really important that the community elect people who are going to be respectful and hardworking and committed to working together as a team for our people,” he said.

The election is on Sept. 26. Polls will be open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. at Totem Hall or Chief Joe Mathias Centre. Online voting is now open. An all-candidates meeting is being held Saturday, Sept. 18, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. at X̱wemelch’stn (Capilano Field). 

Read more about the candidates

Elisia Seeber is the North Shore News’ Indigenous and civic affairs reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.