“It is a new chapter – but we’re in the same book.”
That’s the message from Harley Chappell, recently elected chief of Semiahmoo First Nation.
In the Dec. 22 election, the 40-year-old Chilliwack resident edged out Willard Cook – who had served the nation as chief for 20 years – with 26 votes to 21.
Both Joanne Charles and Roxanne Charles, members of one of SFN’s major families, were re-elected as councillors.
With only 51 of 98 registered Semiahmoo members resident on the reserve, the voting for chief has suggested to some outside observers there is a marked divide in the community, fuelled by a number of issues including the nation’s need for new water and sewer infrastructure, and controversy over chief and council remuneration (in 2015 it was disclosed that the chief and council together received nearly half a million dollars in the 2013-2014 fiscal year).
But there’s no real division, according to Chappell – an affable family man who is owner and instructor of a Brazilian jiu-jitsu academy in Chilliwack – who asked for time to settle into his role before granting an interview with Peace Arch News.
Chappell last week emphasized he wants to build on and honour the work of past Semiahmoo leaders as the nation moves toward some of the “heavy lifting” of improving its infrastructure (SFN has been on a permanent boil water advisory since 2005) and maximizing its land and business partnerships.
Negotiations with the City of Surrey about providing water services are proceeding positively, he said, and he is hopeful new water and sewer infrastructure can be “in the community by the end of summer – that’s our goal.”
But he’s also reaching out to all members of the SFN so that they understand how the nation is moving forward.
“People came to the assumption that there was a great divide in the community and that there was going to be an uprising,” he said.
“My perspective is that we now feel that we’re more together. We can’t know where we’re going if we don’t know where we’ve been. We know where we’re moving to – we’re going to build a beautiful future for all of the Semiahmoo people.”
The Semiahmoo-raised Chappell, who stood as a candidate for SFN office twice before being elected last year, said he is returning to take up responsibilities with the nation – after a life in which he feels he has had his share of mistakes and triumphs – as “part of a natural progression.”
He eventually wants to move his family (his wife Racheal, their sons Brandyn, 18; Jace, 10; Thales, 8; and daughter Kimora, 3) back to the SFN, he said.
“My Se-mi-ah-ma name is Xwopokton – Semiahmoo is the place, Se-mi-ah-ma is the people. I came from the Dolan family but we’re connected to the Charles family as relations. Our history and genealogy all go back to the same people – we’re all family.
“I’m not taking away from – I’m adding to. It’s a role I’ve grown into – hopefully, I can do some good work here, but I’m fairly new to this. Time will tell.”
He noted that, for him, the term ‘chief’ is really a hold-over from colonization – a superimposition of a traditional European chieftain hierarchy on First Nations leadership roles. Leadership, in First Nations terms, is often dependent on skills and strengths that apply to specific situations, he added.
“We actually have different leaders for different things,” he said, adding that First Nations society is also matriarchal – “ultimately, it’s the women who tell us what to do.”
One of Chappell’s first acts following taking office on Jan. 6, he said, was to organize a private ceremony (held earlier this month at Earl Marriott Secondary, where Chappell graduated in 1994) honouring Cook and bestowing one of the traditional names of the nation on the former chief.
“I wouldn’t be here without him,” he said of Cook.
He recalled walking down Beach Avenue on the reserve in the middle of the day when he was 17 years old, and having Cook pull up beside him in his truck.
“He asked what I was doing – why wasn’t I in school? I was already kicked out for – I don’t remember what, now. He said, ‘get in the truck’.
“It went from me being a not-so-respectful young man to going with him two or three times a week to sweat lodge ceremonies – it was my first real contact with the community and with First Nations culture. He started my life down a different path. It shows how one interaction can change people’s lives.”
Chappell also recalled the influence of the man he refers to as Uncle Bernard – late grand chief Bernard Charles – in teaching him about Coast Salish traditions.
When Chappell left the community to go it alone at age 18, it was Charles who encouraged him to learn more about other First Nations peoples and cultures, such as the Squamish nation and the Sto:lo in Chilliwack, and their way of life – with an eye to one day returning to take up responsibilities with SFN.
Seeing recent attacks on SFN’s former leaders over the chief and council salary issue, he said, is what motivated him to return to the community and seek office.
“Our goal as warriors is to provide and protect for all living things,” he said. “When I saw the former chief and council getting hammered on by the outside world and other members, I knew it was time to stand up and take my place and my responsibilities.”
The federal First Nation Financial Transparency Act introduced in 2013 made SFN remuneration public – including $267,729 for Cook, $200,756 for Joanne Charles and $32,198 for Roxanne Charles in compensation – without providing any context or background, Chappell said.
“The outside world started to look at Semiahmoo with a magnifying glass, and that was hurtful to the community.”
After talking to Cook, Chappell said, he was satisfied that what was considered salary for chief and council members included some 10 years of retroactive remuneration for work done to honour outside agreements and property partnerships.
What it did not represent was any federal or other government funding, he said.
“But the outside world says ‘that’s our tax dollars,’” Chappell said. “It spiralled out of control.
“SFN gets very little funding from Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) – in fact, from 1973 to 1994, it didn’t accept any funding. We want to be independent.”
(Note: INAC became Indigenous and Northern Affairs in 2015.)
Most of the nation’s current income comes from business and joint-venture partnerships, Chappell said, and it is currently seeking more opportunities – although he did not specify further.
“There are a lot of good things on the go,” he said.
Talks and negotiations with the City of Surrey on water and sewer services, facilitated with the help of INAC, are taking “80 per cent of (our) time” he said, but he is very optimistic about the working relationship.
“They’re being very creative on how to accommodate us, and we’re working through these steps together.”
The closer relationship with Surrey, he agreed, is a result of a strained relationship with White Rock – due largely to a notice received in August last year that the nation took as an ultimatum that it had 18 months to find a new water source.
“Traditionally, our relationship with White Rock has been very good,” Chappell noted. “But recently, communication fell by the wayside. I’m hoping to work through that.
“We’re finding our rightful place, both with water and with property, with our neighbours. We’ll find that place.”
Chappell’s comments echo those of councillor Joanne Charles, who told PAN last September that, although the nation and the city have historically enjoyed a good relationship, “something has changed” in the last several years.
But Chappell said he is confident that mutual goodwill between the communities will prevail.
“I always say that, while some people say good fences make good neighbours, it’s not higher fences that make good neighbours – it’s longer tables.”