Chief Ian Campbell

Global Perspective, Home-Grown Hope: Chief Ian Campbell’s Leadership Journey

Chief Ian Campbell is a hereditary chief from the Squamish nation and he wants the world to know Indigenous people are still here. His ancestral name is Xalek and his Chieftain name is Sekyu Siyam. Serving his fourth term as an elected counselor for the nation, he was first employed with Squamish in 99 in intergovernmental relations as one of the lead negotiators and cultural ambassadors. Through his travels, he’s represented his nation all over the world and his eyes were opened to the plight of Indigenous people

Born and raised on the Mission Reserve in North Vancouver, he was immersed in language and culture by his very traditional grandparents, Chief Lawrence Baker and June Baker. He went out on the land, hunted, fished and went to longhouse ceremonies. Art was his hobby; he refined his style and became more authentic to his own cultural traditions as he got older. He built on old regalias, carving whalebone clubs, blanket pins and combs made from elk. One of his canvases ended up in the Museum of Vancouver. 

“I strongly encourage our young people to get out and see the world as much as possible.” 

A two-month youth exchange trip to Chile changed his mind about pursuing heavy duty mechanics and welding. After seeing the magnitude of oppression of Indigenous people in Chile, Chief Campbell had a shift in perspective.  “It really opened my eyes to my responsibilities as a young leader, as a young Indigenous man,” he recalled.  He sees travel as a modern day rite of passage for young people and a path for personal growth. 

He remembered in Chile being thrown against a wall with a gun to his head on his first night and reflects on the need to prepare for travel.  “When you travel, follow our teachings and show respect to the people of those lands just as we would, when our canoe arise to shore, you asked permission to come into that land. You introduce yourself, you do prayers, you make offerings to those territories and you acknowledge the spirit and then you walk humbly and you then have open eyes and gratitude for all the gifts that come to you and those experiences,” he counsels. 

“It's my responsibility to, as an ambassador, do the best I can to represent our people.”

On his return, he became involved in politics, and his grandfather bestowed the chieftainship on him at the age of 22.  He became a negotiator and ran for council, where he has served the majority of his adult life. Chief Campbelll follows in the footsteps of his ancestors, like his grandfather who was a cultural leader and a speaker in the longhouse. His great-grandfather chief Willy Baker was one of the signatories for the 1923 amalgamation which formed the Squamish nation. 

After working on a ranch in the Chilcotin, Chief Campbell returned to go to school and do youth counselling work. He worked in the Vancouver School Board, then did his undergraduate degree and MBA, opening the door to leadership and business development in his community at home and on the world’s stage. 

“The world has this preconceived image of us. They don't really know who we are. We've been invisible in our own land for far too long by design, systemic racism.”

He worked with other host nations to ensure authentic representation at the 2010 Olympics, which he said, “was a great opportunity to showcase to the world that we're not a vanished race, that we're still here. It was an amazing opportunity to tell the world Indigenous peoples are vibrant. Seeing the youth from all across this country come out onto that floor… we called it Operation Shock. We wanted to show the diversity and the strength of our youth.” 

The Olympics were history in the making and now Chief Campbell reflects on the history being made today through the pandemic. “There's always a catalyst to change and that you can never go backwards to the way it was before the change. You can only adapt and move forward by utilizing the best tools that are available to you,” he opines. 

“We have to have a fundamental belief that we will survive, that our people have been through many catalysts of change and transformation. Our world has changed once again, but we're still here. So we just simply adapt in, in every one of those iterations of growth and transformation”

While the past provides context, the future gives him inspiration. “Looking to our young ones as the next generation to see the beautiful spirits and how sacred they are, that we cannot take that for granted that that's the next generation and that we're simply relay runners. We have a duty for succession to transference of knowledge, to pass that baton to the next generation. When I see the children in our families, I just think there's great hope. Each generation is getting stronger and better opportunities that our parents and grandparents had,” he beamed. 

He's also inspired by the resilience of Indigenous people. “There was an attempt to eradicate our entire language and culture and way of life by Canada, which is very sinister. It's formidable for us to have overcome those challenges, but we're still here and we're still doing it. That inspires me, that we're a part of something great. That matters. It makes a difference,” he proclaimed. 

Chief Campbell has been to over 30 countries and grew from the experience of seeing the world. “We are still here” is the message he takes with him wherever he goes. In going away, he was able to find a new perspective and appreciation for home, kindle the spirit of leadership modelled for him by his ancestors and forge a new path forward on behalf of his nation.

Thanks to Alison Tedford for authoring this article.

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