British Columbia

Meet the Indigenous youth vying to change the face of the Squamish Nation

An election is heating up at the Squamish Nation, as 60 candidates vie for one of the 16 councillor positions. Candidate Kristen Rivers is fighting to see more women and youth on council who can better represent their population.

'Council doesn't accurately reflect our population and it's time for men to support women on council'

From left to right: Kristen Rivers, 33, Taylor George-Hollis, 23, Crystal Starr Lewis, 23, Dustin Rivers, 28, are four of the candidates running for the position of councillor with the Squamish Nation.

It all started when Kristen Rivers' 11-year-old daughter told her she wanted to be prime minister when she grew up.

"I wanted to make sure I had the courage to follow my dreams so she can follow hers," the Squamish and Kwakwakwakw mother said from her Capilano reserve home.

But River's decision to run for one of the Squamish Nation's coveted 16 councillor positions came from a loftier goal. 

"Our council has never been made up of more than 20 per cent women" she said. 

"Women have been under-represented on decisions made at that table that affect all of us," she added.

Women who are registered with the Squamish Nation make up almost 52 per cent of the population and according to the Squamish nation, 40 per cent of their voting members are between the age of 18 and 35. 

Of 16 councillors currently heading up the Squamish Nation, five are women.

Young Squamish women fighting for change

Rivers is not the only young woman running for council in hopes of changing the face of the nation. She is one of 17 candidates who have never been on council and are under the age of 35. She says no person currently on council is under the age of 30.

Taylor George-Hollis is one of nine candidates, five of which are women, who will be running as a slate in the upcoming Squamish Nation elections. (Angela Sterritt )

"When I talk about empowering women, it's not anti-men or that patriarchy is strong in our communities. It's the outside system seeping in, she said.

Band councils, like the Squamish Nation, were created under the Indian Act and displaced traditional forms of governance like the potlatch — which were outlawed and punishable by imprisonment.

There are still 16 hereditary chieftainships in the Squamish Nation, but those leaders still need to get elected to council to have decision making power. 

Unlike other bands, the Squamish Nation does not have an elected chief position.

Twenty-three-year-old Taylor George-Hollis, who is also a candidate, says while the band council is not a traditional Indigenous governing structure today, it's a system that still can be used to communicate with and influence power.

"In a colonial setting, it's important to have people speak on behalf of your nation, George-Hollis said.

'We can't allow the government to displace us anymore," she added, referencing how Squamish people were forcibly removed from an area which was once a village now called Stanley Park.

Crystal Starr Lewis wants to be on council not just to affect change when it comes to gender parity, but to influence decisions about LNG developments, transparency and electoral reform. (Angela Sterritt)

George-Hollis is also concerned that the members of the Squamish Nation are not as involved in decision making as they could be and worries communities such as those in the Squamish Valley are often left out.

Another youth candidate, Crystal Starr Lewis, says getting youth to the table will mean amplifying diverse voices and issues that have often been neglected.

"There's a lot of mistrust in our nation right now, so I want to help in building the trust of our people up again and make sure that decisions benefit the entire community," Lewis said.

Lewis says transparency, housing, electoral reform and sustainable development are top of mind for her and the other young people running. A controversial LNG development  —  the $1.6-billion Woodfibre project — has also sparked debate among Squamish Nation members over the years. 

Squamish men in support 

Kristen's brother, Dustin Rivers, a 28-year old SFU lecturer and language teacher decided to work with candidates who had never been elected before who, like him, seek change.

He supports the idea of having more women on council and says sexism needs to be addressed.

"There's been laws and attitudes that have prevented our women from succeeding in politics, and I think it's time for men to start speaking up for the women", he said.

Hereditary Chief Ian Campbell thinks youth should be groomed for leadership so that they have the skills and qualifications needed to sit on council and agrees women should be fully represented. (Ian Campbell)

Chief Ian Campbell, a hereditary chief who has been on council for three terms and is also vying for a councillor position, said he believes that current leaders should be grooming future leaders, so they have the skills and qualifications to make important decisions.

"I think its really important to have gender balance," he said.

He said for two terms in a row, the Squamish Nation has had female chairpersons and added the nation has also had a number of women on council.

 "And I think that falls naturally in our own Indigenous laws where the matriarchs are the bosses. We have to empower our life givers," he said.

Advanced voting begins this Thursday and voting day is Dec.10.


Angela Sterritt

CBC Reporter

Angela Sterritt is a journalist from the Gitxsan Nation. Sterritt's news and current affairs pieces are featured on national and local CBC platforms. Her CBC column 'Reconcile This' tackles the tensions between Indigenous people and institutions in B.C. Have a story idea?