WFN chief Christopher Derickson speaks to media at grand reopening of Sənsisyustən House of Learning in September 2019. (Contributed by WFN)

WFN chief Christopher Derickson speaks to media at grand reopening of Sənsisyustən House of Learning in September 2019. (Contributed by WFN)

Leading Westbank First Nation into the future

Chief Christopher Derickson address issues facing the Westbank First Nation

The West K News interviewed Westbank First Nation (WFN) chief Christopher Derickson last week and invited him to respond to a variety of issues facing Indigenous culture.

Derickson was elected WFN chief in 2019. His diverse post-secondary education background includes an executive MBA in Aboriginal and Business Leadership from Simon Fraser University, a Juris Doctor degree from UBC Law School and a Bachelor of Arts degree with a major in political science from UBC Okanagan.

He sits on several boards including the Okanagan College Board of Governors, which he chaired for two years, and was included by Business in Vancouver as ‘Forty under 40’ award recipient in 2017.

What were the challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic?

“None of us elected to the new council last year, two newly elected, one incumbent and one who has served previously, anticipated having to govern during a pandemic. There is no handbook for that.

“We had developed our strategic planning process in October and hit the ground running in January, starting to make some headway on that when the pandemic shut everything down. During that time period, we had to ensure our residents, our membership, the business owners on our lands were looked after.

“We are very fortunate in B.C. to have the leadership of (provincial health officer) Dr. Bonnie Henry and we are trending in the right direction…flattening the curve. Our WFN membership has so far had no reported cases, and no reported cases for Okanagan Nation as well.”

What about the wider impact of COVID-19 on Indigenous people?

“I guess with the narrative of our experience in Canada, it’s no secret we have dealt with our fair share of challenges from our initial contact with European settlers through history to impact of colonization and the pandemics of early disease that spread through our communities and in some cases wiped out entire Indigenous populations.

“Today we deal with modern society systemic racism, over-representation in our prison system, under-representation at higher levels of government and the public sector as well, under-representation of high school and post-secondary graduation rates. We have survived through these experiences in our history and I’m quite sure we’ll make it through this.”

What is the economic outlook for WFN’s future?

“We are looking forward to our development plans with an idea to being more environmentally-friendly and be mindful of our carbon footprint…we are living in an era of facing drastic impacts due to climate change, which was top of mind before the COVID-19 pandemic was born.

“We are looking at taking a more progressive direction in the kinds of development we want to attract…to partner with developers willing to look beyond short-term profit and look to the type of world we are leaving for our children.

“Millennials don’t look at both sides of climate change as baby boomers who discuss the merits of both sides…They accept climate change is here, it’s happening and let’s do something about it.

“As millennials age and move into positions of authority, you will start to see that change in policy”

Is the resolution of land claims issue still at the forefront of First Nations thinking?

“I think every generation of ours as their issues for that period and time…outstanding land claims were an issue in the 1990s before that was our right to vote and unjust racist government legislation, prior to that was recognition of aboriginal title to land in Canada, prior to that people on reserves not allowed to leave the reserves or vote.

“The framework of that conversation has expanded to a wider scope about culture and language, more than just land. The issue is still outstanding but the scope of the discussions is wider today.”

What has led to improved graduation rates for WFN students?

“The Central Okanagan School District has done an amazing job and been an excellent partner for us. We value our relationship with them and come to realize their success is our success.

“Our youth still face issues with gang violence, and drugs and alcohol addiction, but we are about to celebrate our fourth straight year of 100 per cent high school graduation rate.

That is the result of our past leadership making investments in education and other social programs to support our young people.

“Back for my WFN student graduation class, we had an event at some obscure hall in Winfield that I can’t remember the name of.

Today, for that ceremony we pack the largest gym in the school district at KSS and there is still not enough room for all the parents and friends wanting to attend…things have changed dramatically for the better.”

What is the benefit from serving as the chair of the Okanagan College board of governors before becoming chief?

“It has been a phenomenal experience…I learned how to chair a meeting and direct conversations in the right way and also work with different levels of government…all through my career I have been fortunate to work with knowledgeable and experienced people and learn from them.”

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