Pursuing education to serve

When her first nation signs its first-ever treaty, Stephanie Charlie wants to be there.

“I want to help my community,” says Charlie, a graduating UBC arts student and member of Cowichan Tribes, one of Canada’s largest First Nation communities, located in Duncan on Vancouver Island. “That is why I plan to run for councilor in our next election.”

Although just in her 30s, Charlie is no stranger to the campaign trail. Last year, she ran to be a band councilor – up against more than 70 candidates – while juggling classes at UBC.

“That was such a busy time for me,” says Charlie, one of 120 Aboriginal students graduating from UBC this academic year. “I was commuting from the Island to UBC, working evenings, doing my school, and raising my daughter,” she says, referring to Kaitlyn, her four-year-old.

Charlie likes her chances better next time around. After graduation in May, she will return to Cowichan where she, her partner Gerald and Kaitlyn have a house. But more importantly, she says there is a generational shift occurring in many Aboriginal communities across Canada.

“There is a movement to have more young people taking on leadership roles,” says Charlie, noting her band and the province have begun treaty negotiations. “As leaders get older, there are more opportunities for young people with higher education and skills to make a positive impact. Elders are encouraging youth to take on more leadership roles.”

Charlie credits her grandmother, Lillian, a well-known community health representative who worked closely with residential school survivors, for inspiring her to serve her community. “I was raised by my grandparents and loved watching them helping people,” says Charlie, whose grandparents recently passed away. “My grandmother taught me that true communities help each other and never look down on anyone less fortunate. She really inspired me.”

Before coming to UBC, Charlie studied at Malaspina College and Vancouver’s Institute of Indigenous Governance, and is now considering graduate programs in First Nations governance. “I am kind of addicted to education,” she says. “Part of it is wanting to better myself, but I also want to be able to look my daughter in the eye when I tell her she’s got to go to university.”

Charlie says the UBC Museum of Anthropology attracted her to UBC, along with the Faculty of Arts’ First Nations Studies Program, which explores aboriginality through a variety of disciplines, including law, history, education, and fine arts. She credits a special teacher for igniting a special passion for history.

“Professor Coll Thrush made history come alive for me,” says Charlie, who stayed with Musqueum relatives while attending UBC. “He is just so passionate about what he teaches and opens up so many ideas. In our first history class, he welcomed us in Hunquminum, a Musqueum dialect, and Lushootseed, the indigenous language of Puget Sound. That really had an impact on me.”

At UBC, Charlie did a practicum with a First Nations health organization, researching documentation of traditional medicine practices and uses. Her thesis advisor was Linc Kessler, a professor of Oglala Lakota ancestry who is leading UBC’s Aboriginal Strategic Plan to increase financial support for Aboriginal students and the recruitment of First Nations students and faculty.

Outside school, Charlie consults for Stantec, a company that performs environmental assessments for businesses in resource industries, including mining and oil. The experience, which involves minimizing environmental and community impacts, will serve her well in politics.

“My job is to facilitate the consultation process,” Charlie says. “I communicate potential impacts of a project on communities, and bring concerns and wishes back to the planners. My main concern is always that First Nations people are being heard and that they understand the project and the process.”

Political aspirations aside, Charlie also plans to put her passion for history to good use. One day, she hopes to write the history of Cowichan.

“Do you know Coast Salish chiefs travelled to England by steam ship to protest their treatment by B.C. settlers to then King Edward VIII back in 1902?” Charlie says. “Or that Sir James Douglas began selling Cowichan land to settlers without any negotiations?

“These are things you don’t read in most history books and it would help if everybody did,” she says. “I want to foster pride, especially among our youth, by telling the story of our people and our achievements.”

Learn more about the First Nations Studies Program at arts.ubc.ca and UBC’s Aboriginal Strategy at aboriginal.ubc.ca.