Chief Christopher Derickson is Syilx and serves as the Ilmixem (Chief) of the Westbank First Nation. As a child, he lived in the cities of Vancouver and Calgary, but moved back at age 11 to become known as “one of the worst kids on the reserve.” His is an inspirational journey from that troubled youth to the position of Chief (as well as lecturer at Simon Fraser University and the University of Arizona, founder of an Indigenous community planning organization, Chair of the Okanogan College Board, member of the All Nations Trust Company, and more).
When Chief Derickson and his family returned to their reserve, he was faced with the extreme contrast between their previous middle class suburban life and the poverty of the reserve. “There was a noticeable cultural shift …. And unfortunately, just like most reserves across Canada, we have a number of social issues within our community. It was a lot worse when I was a kid….Then, there was really nothing for the young people.”
Being an Indigenous teen learning about his own people “from the perspective of the colonizers” was infuriating to the young Christopher. “I remember distinctly that it awoke some sort of anger in me. A very angry child, I got in a lot of fights at school.” By the time he was 14, Christopher was smoking, drinking, and doing drugs. And at 17, he unexpectedly became a father.
“I remember in the hospital, holding my baby boy in my arms, who was literally the size of a baseball cap, and thinking to myself, ‘I don’t want this child to be anything like the person I am today. It was a wake-up call for me.”
Chief Derickson recalls, “I knew deep down the way I was living wasn’t right. And that was a turning point for me. I quit drinking. I quit smoking weed. I quit smoking cigarettes. And of course in doing that, anybody who’s ever done that in their life [knows] you lose all your friends. In high school to go from being well-liked and what you might call popular to having no friends and sitting in the Native Room by yourself at lunch, was a pretty traumatic experience.”
As Christopher took one path to clean himself up, many of his friends went in the opposite direction, tragically including his young son’s mom. “I lost a lot of friends to drugs, alcohol, gang initiations that went sideways. Lost a lot of friends, even lost the mother of my son. She passed away when he was only four or five years old from a drug overdose.”
The challenges of being a young single father were made more difficult for Christopher as he attempted to improve his education. “Took me an extra two years to graduate high school, kept failing math class. I went to university from there, and promptly almost got kicked out, was put on academic probation twice.” Christopher recognized the fault was not with him, but with the system he had grown up in. “I wasn’t ready for [university] because nobody had taught me. I didn’t know about the skills you needed to study, to write papers, to speak disciplined in that way. I had never done things like that in my life. So I ended up dropping out.”
However, it was his son who again gave Christopher the strength to persevere. “We named him Justin, because of that connotation [with] justice. I wanted justice for my son. It wasn’t his choice to come into this world to teenage characters….and I felt it was my job to bring a sense of justice to his life. I am just so grateful that I was able to find that purpose.”
Chief Derickson spent over ten years pursuing post-secondary education. Trying and sometimes failing, and trying again. “While I had almost been kicked out of university, I learned how to study. I learned how to apply myself and ended up a very good student.”
He studied for a master’s degree in Indigenous Planning, received a law degree from UBC, and an MBA from Simon Fraser University. “Three degrees later, I’m still not satisfied,” he admits. “I’m still waiting for the opportunity to go back and do a doctorate.”
Today, Chief Derickson is proud to say that the “young and dynamic council that I serve with [is] actually the most educated council in the history of Westbank First Nation.” He and the other council members are deeply committed to the betterment of their community. Chief Derickson credits his parents for that. “The example that I had growing up, was that community involvement was just expected. A part of your life.” His father, especially, was passionate about community politics, though he was “what you might call a dissident…a heavy critic of the Chief and Council.” This meant “loud debates around the kitchen table.”
But that passion inspired the way in which Chief Derickson, who goes by the term Ilmixem, has chosen to serve: “Ilmixem is the term in our language for chief, and it actually paints a picture of bringing strands and a rope together and coiling those strands on top of itself; like coiling a rope to make a tower. If you can picture that, that’s what it means. To bring people together and build something beautiful together, and intricate and delicate out of. So I see my role as bringing people together and using their strengths.”
Unsurprisingly, Chief Derickson’s advice to young people is about perseverance. “Whatever your goal is, it takes effort, sustained effort.” And whether you choose to stay in your community or leave, he says you must “keep your community in your heart.”
“There is a strong need in our communities for professionals who understand our people. And we’ve relied far too long — as Indigenous people — on outside consultants, outside advice. And I truly believe that the answers our community requires, they’re within our people. So if you’re going to leave, some of you will go out, I’m sure, find careers out in the world off-reserve. And I think that’s a noble path to take. But for some of you, you’re going to have a strong call back to your community and you may look and think there’s not a lot of opportunity there, you might see the challenges. But at some point in your life, you have to realize that’s what life’s about, is meeting these challenges head-on and finding the solutions. And who better to solve those problems for our people than ourselves?”
Special thanks to Jessica Dee Humphreys for authoring this blog post.
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