New Chief Doug carries on the White family legacy

Wed. Mar. 3/10
New chief Doug carries on the White family legacy
Mark Kiemele

In the 1970s, a young boy went fishing with his grandfather. As they fished, the boy listened as his grandfather talked about the Snuneymuxw people and about what qualities are required to be a leader.

The grandfather was Doug White I – Tiqwup – chief of Snuneymuxw in the 1960s. The boy was Doug White III – Kwul’a’sul’tun – who, in December, was elected chief of Snuneymuxw First Nation.

Even though he has been trained and groomed to be a leader since boyhood, he did not imagine that he would be offered the sad opportunity late last year with the sudden passing of Chief Viola Wyse.

“Our Nation suffered a great tragedy when we lost Viola. When we lost her, we had to figure out what we were going to do. We had lots of conversations in the family and other people in the community about what our approach was going to be.

“There was an election coming up. It was not a simple decision for me to come home.

The path to the perfect job

Doug was working for the law firm Mandell Pinder in Vancouver. Led by Louise Mandell, it has become one of Canada’s top aboriginal law firms, especially since the Delgamuukw decision on title in 1997.

“Louise had approached me when I was articling at another firm in Victoria. She told me that she was going to be retiring in a few years… It was a great opportunity.”

The Mandell Pinder job seemed to be the crowning moment in a career of a 40-year-old man. He was newly married and was living in Yaletown and working on aboriginal rights and title cases.

A decade earlier, Doug was earning his bachelor’s degree and working for the Snuneymuxw as its governance coordinator. By 2007, he had earned his law degree from the University of Victoria and officially became a lawyer a year later.

Doug was ‘called to the bar’ (the ceremony for becoming a lawyer) in the Nanaimo courthouse. The occasion was filled with both history and irony. It was in the same courtroom that Tiqwup saw victory in the Regina v. White and Bob Supreme Court decision as well as other key aboriginal rights and title cases.

In hearts and souls… and spirit

At the ceremony, Doug said:

“I have had the great fortune to have had many amazing mentors and teachers in my life.

“I have made it a practice to seek out people who have suffered to achieve mastery over a field of knowledge.  And I have been blessed to find some such individuals.

“They have been on my mind very much in the days leading up to today… What makes someone a master of what they do is not what they know, but what is in their hearts and in their souls and the strength of their spirit.

“It is in the way that you approach life, the disposition that you have every day that you wake up and face the world, and attack it to make it better a place each and every day.”

An opportunity for leadership

The death of the Snuneymuxw chief last August was an immediate challenge for the government, but council quickly installed Doug’s father – Doug White II – as interim leader until chief and council elections in December.

The new chief is aware of all the challenges that the job ef brings, but is confident that his life-long training has provided him with the skills required.

“I was raised by my grandfather and my family to be a leader in the community since I was little… When I was young, I used to spend a lot of time fishing with my grandfather. He talked to me about the responsibilities to my family and community…

“I always thought one day I would come home and do this work. With every bit of success and help I provided other First Nations, it was always in the back of my mind that I would come home…

“I was gathering all the skills and knowledge and training that I could so that I could someday serve the Snuneymuxw people.”

Along with the responsibility that he feels for his people, Doug also is mindful of his debt to the community for the support he received throughout his years of education.

“I feel that I owe a great debt. I was asked to come home and so I did. The decision, in that sense, was easy to make.

The nature of the work

Asked if there had been any early surprises for him, Doug said: “I’ve been working for First Nations for most of my life, so I am very aware of what all the issues are and the nature of the work.

“But one of the real surprises is just how rewarding it can be when you are able to make a difference in the lives of your members. When someone asks for help, and you are in a position to provide that help, it is extremely rewarding.

One of the great advantages of First Nations government is that we have the ability to know each and every one of our members. It is kind of a unique position, because most governments in Canada do not have a clue and cannot possibly know who everyone is, but we can.

“It really leaves you with a good feeling in your heart to be able to work so directly for your people.

Viola’s legacy

The legacy of the Chief Wyse is large. Doug recognizes three main areas.

“The partnerships she created with other governments has the potential to yield a lot of benefits to Snuneymuxw,” he said. “And, for the first time in more than a generation, there’s a program that is providing housing for our members. This is one of the biggest issues that we have. There are 1,600 members and more than 1,000 live off reserve.

“Finally, there is her leadership style which was deep compassion and care for the members… that every day she brought her heart and soul into the job. There is so much from her example, and I have made it clear to council and staff that I want to learn from the way she lived her life and the way that she governed.

“She took the time with her members; to show respect for them and to care for them and to show love to them. I want to let them know that that inspires me.

“She showed us how to be Snuneymuxw. She inspired me not only to be a good person, but also to be the best Snuneymuxw person.

“I hope that I can emulate not just those qualities as chief, but in my own life.