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Chief Bryce Williams, 23, of the Tsawwassen First Nation is photographed on the Tsawwassen First Nation reserve in Tsawwassen, British Columbia, Sept. 7, 2012. He replaces Kim Baird, who held the title for 13 years. (Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail)
Chief Bryce Williams, 23, of the Tsawwassen First Nation is photographed on the Tsawwassen First Nation reserve in Tsawwassen, British Columbia, Sept. 7, 2012. He replaces Kim Baird, who held the title for 13 years. (Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail)

Tsawwassen First Nation Elections

Tsawwassen chief-elect, 23, steps cautiously into public eye Add to ...

When the Tsawwassen First Nation held elections this week, the buzz was imperceptible. Kim Baird had been chief for 13 years and, in that time, had led her people to independence.

She was one of the chief architects of the agreement her people signed with the federal and provincial governments in 2009 – the country’s first modern urban treaty. At 42, she was widely respected among those inhabiting B.C.’s power circles. Because of her experience, she was viewed as the right person to be leading a massive economic development project worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

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Most thought she’d be chief for life – or at least as long as she wanted the job.

But following the vote Wednesday evening, Ms. Baird sent out a two-word dispatch on Twitter to announce the result: “I lost.” She was defeated by a 23-year-old carver who is mostly unknown beyond the grounds of his first nations community.

On Friday, chief-elect Bryce Williams sat in the boardroom of the Tsawwassen First Nation (TFN) offices ready for his first interview. He wore checkered shorts and a black T-shirt with a salmon-coloured native motif emblazoned on the front. A fedora-style, cedar-bark hat woven by his mother, Merle, sat atop his head.

Mr. Williams greeted me with a look of curiosity, suspicion and dread. Across from him sat Colin Ward, manager of policy and intergovernmental affairs, who spoke up when the young chief began wading into areas with which he wasn’t well acquainted.

Mr. Williams conceded that the vote result was a shocker to many. He hadn’t run on a radically different platform than Ms. Baird. He certainly supported the ambitious economic development plans that she had mostly spearheaded. He said he was more “culturally involved” in the community and that may have been the difference.

“I’m a carver and a singer and a dancer,” he said. “And I’m going to help bring that back here – our culture. I think that message had a big impact on the votes.”

He admitted that when he woke up Thursday morning he briefly questioned the wisdom of what he’d done, whether he’d temporarily lost his mind when he decided to run for the job. “But I’m still pretty confident with the support I have from the new executive council and the staff and the wider community that I’m ready to step up in my role as leader.”

Mr. Williams, likely on the advice of advisers, kept his answers short, simple and vague. He didn’t head down paths he was uncertain of, or try to make up answers to questions for which he wasn’t prepared. So when asked what his vision was, he paused for a second before responding: “Um, ah, I guess I’d just say bringing our community together and bringing our culture back to where it was in the past.”

Mr. Williams seems like a fine person: quiet, respectful and, I’m certain, smart. Yet you have to question the wisdom of the TFN populace in handing the decision-making reins to such a young, inexperienced member of their group – especially given what’s at stake. Sure, he will be backed up by an executive council that is made up of older, wiser souls. But he still has to represent his community at meetings where he will have to make calls and take decisions without their counsel.

Plans are already under way to build a 1.8-million-square-foot mall on TFN land (making it the second largest in the province) and an 1,800-unit housing development being built by Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini. There is a 135-hectare industrial park that is also part of the TFN’s overall economic plans. Mr. Aquilini would also like to build an incinerator there. Now, future negotiations for all this and more are going to be led by a 23-year-old carver who has no familiarity in this area.

One is forgiven for imagining profit-mad developers licking their chops at the prospect.

For his part, Mr. Williams said he isn’t worried about being hoodwinked by hucksters trying to exploit his greenness. He won’t be the victim of some snowjob, he insists. He has plenty of people he can turn to for advice when he needs it. Nor, he said, does he worry about his community being swallowed up by the colossal industrial and economic complex being built in its backyard.

Instead, he said, he prefers to focus on the money it will bring in, and the opportunities it will create.

“I can understand why people are [skeptical] and I know I have a big job to do, but I’ll be fine,” he said. “I think it’s all going to work out perfectly.”

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