Every two years, the Musqueam First Nation in southwest Vancouver elects a 10-member council and, at its head, a chief.
But on election day this December, one name will be conspicuously absent from the ballot.
Since 1999, Chief Ernie Campbell has guided the 1,296 member band through land-claims disputes, fishing-rights issues, and the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
Declining to pursue another consecutive term, Campbell has ignited a competition for his vacant post. Five candidates, ranging from the fresh-faced to the experienced, hope to become the second chief of the new millennium.
Current council members Nolan Charles, Wade Grant, and Wayne Sparrow are running alongside two female candidates, political newcomer Chrystal Sparrow and former chief Gail Sparrow.
A new political era
These five contenders face a political arena far different than their predecessors.
A dynamic transformation is occurring across First Nations leadership, said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs.
“There was a tendency in the past to continue to support leadership on a longer-term basis,” said Phillip. “But remember, we’re dealing with two different eras here. We’re dealing now with a much more energetic, better educated, perhaps more demanding electorate than in the past.”
The past tendency to retain the same leaders term after term wasn’t just a question of voter preference. For some, including Chrystal Sparrow, the youngest candidate, those lengthy tenures suggest problems within the current political system.
The federal Indian Act still governs the way the Musqueam and many other First Nations conduct their elections. The act enforces no term limits on chiefs.
“The leadership in the last 20-plus years has been the same people, and that’s posed issues,” said Sparrow. “There are no policies in place to have restrictions on how many terms you can serve. Things become stagnant.”
Across the nations
This sense of stagnancy is being shaken up by leadership shifts across First Nations groups.
Four years ago, Phillip himself stepped down after 14 years as chief of the Penticton Indian Band in the Okanagan Valley. This past September in Greater Vancouver, the Tsawwassen First Nation narrowly elected a 23-year-old to replace longtime chief Kim Baird.
“Tsawwassen wasn’t a one-off situation. Rather, it is part of an emerging pattern that’s taking place across the country,” said Phillip.
This emerging pattern of change has put even established candidates on their toes. A 20-year veteran of the Musqueam First Nation’s council, Nolan Charles acknowledged the volatility of his position.
“You can’t be arrogant enough to think, ‘I’m going to get back in. Don’t worry about it,’” said Charles. “It is a privilege, and that privilege can be taken away at any time.”
The leadership overhaul is partly prompted by evolving First Nations demographics, according to Phillip. He knows first-hand.
“I stepped down because I could see this demographic tsunami coming, and I knew it was time for me to step aside,” said Phillip.
That “tsunami” is a rising youth population. First Nations communities across the country report swelling numbers of children and young adults.
Musqueam is no exception. The 2006 census divided the Musqueam population living on reserve into five-year age groups, starting with toddlers and ending with the elderly. By far, the largest of these age groups was from 15 to 19 years old. They accounted for a full 10 per cent of the population.
Six years later, in 2012, that population bump has reached the voting age of 18.
Blending new and old
The transition of youths into adulthood has Musqueam candidates blending new campaign tactics with older ones.
“The younger generation, they are techno-savvy, so I do have Facebook for them. I do have Twitter for them,” said Gail Sparrow, who has run for chief in the last six elections. “That’s the modern side. But there are people who aren’t necessarily connected to that, like the baby boomers, where I come from.”
To reach those baby-boom voters, even the younger candidates, like 34-year-old Wade Grant, continue to use traditional methods of campaigning.
“The community, though it has grown a lot, is still closely knit. You’re able to go around knocking on doors, and I intend on doing that,” said Grant, who also maintains a social-media presence.
While Grant does perceive a generational difference between himself and the outgoing chief, he sees Campbell’s leadership not as a relic of the past but as a “foundation that our next generation can build upon.”
“There are times when we need to stand our ground more, and Ernie has been able to do that, to make sure that the Musqueam’s interests were not run rough-shod over,” said Grant. “We’ve been warriors in the traditional sense a number of years ago, and we need to continue to be.”
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