Growing up on the Tsartlip reserve in Brentwood Bay, Don Tom’s first audiences were his big family. At one Christmas gathering, his father Chris Tom recalled, the youngest Tom boy stood on a chair and gave a particularly dramatic speech.
The years of theatre camps, school plays and improv performances that followed might have been unusual for the trades-focused family, but they prepared Tom for his most important public role.
Tom, 31, was elected chief of the Tsartlip First Nation less than a year ago and is now on a path to make his community more sustainable and less reliant on government funding.
“We need to move away from managing poverty,” said Tom, standing on the maple-lined shore of Brentwood Bay wearing a Toronto Maple Leafs watch.
Fittingly, Tsartlip means “land of maples” in SENC'OTEN, the language of the Saanich nations. “My vision is to create more wealth for the community, to be in service to them and their needs.”
It’s a refrain among struggling First Nations that has gone largely unnoticed in coverage of the recent First Nations Transparency Act rules, where bands are required to publicly post financial information, including income, debt and salaries.
“We’ve been doing that for a while, so it’s not a big deal for us. But I do question the motives of the [Prime Minster Stephen] Harper government,” said Tom, referring to the controversy over a Greater Vancouver chief who received nearly $1 million last year. Kwikwetlem First Nation Chief Ron Giesbrecht made less than $5,000 in his role as chief of the 82-member band, but he received an $800,000 one-time bonus for his work as the economic director.
“It’s just curious what has been given the most attention,” said Tom, who receives a salary of about $25,000 a year as chief. Tsartlip councillors receive less than $15,000.
At the Aug. 21 opening of the new Tsartlip gas station on Stelly’s Cross Road, Tom said he hoped the $1.7-million project was the beginning of economic development for the First Nation with about 1,000 members, most of whom live on reserve and many of whom struggle to make ends meet.
“It’s sustainable revenue for the community,” he said. “So we don’t have to rely on government funding, that’s not enough.”
Tom might be one of the youngest chiefs of Tsartlip or on the Island, but he is experienced. At 23, he was elected to the band council after being nominated by his aunt.
“They [his family] encouraged me and thought I offered a fresh perspective,” he said. His father was chief at the time, so the two learned early on to separate politics from the personal. “There were definite boundaries. I called him ‘Chris’ or ‘Chief’ but definitely not ‘Dad’ at council meetings.”
Tom said his first term was a steep learning curve.
“A number of big things happened,” he said, including a health-care strike and the desecration of a sacred cave at Bear Mountain. Tom served as a spokesman.
He said his theatre background always helped him speak publicly. He once played the role of Big Jule in the musical Guys and Dolls at Stelly’s Secondary School and performed around Victoria with the improv troupe Impromaniacs.
“I was always the only First Nations kid, but I seldom experienced any kind of racism growing up,” he said. “Though I know others have had different experiences.”
Tom completed a second term as a councillor and took two runs at chief before winning the job in the December election. The first try, he lost by 23 votes. Two years later, he lost by three votes.
“As a young person, I knew I had time on my side and could run again,” said Tom. He ran his latest campaign on a positive note, “challenging the issues not the people.”
Tom also spent the past 10 years building his career, working with aboriginal communities, youth and families. Tom completed the First Nation Support Worker program at Camosun College and has worked for the Pauquachin First Nation, the Ministry of Children and Family Development and the South Island Wellness Society.
“One of my ambitions has always been to get youth involved,” said Tom. “I’d also like to make sure the community has an opportunity and safe place to share their concerns.”
Tom said he chose to stay in Tsartlip and work for his community largely because of his strong ties to family.
“My grandmother was a great influence. Her cultural values were instilled in me,” said Tom, who spent much of his childhood in his grandmother’s home as family members struggled with alcoholism. He said as a hard worker and residential school survivor, his grandmother, Nora Tom, taught him a lot about patience and personal values.
He cites Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, as a professional mentor who has offered him advice during frustrating times and is a “man of integrity and principles.”
Phillip called Tom a “dynamic young leader, who, in many ways, is an example of the emerging First Nation leadership,” he said.
“I’ve been doing this for 40 years and have seen many young leaders but now I’m seeing something different. They are results-oriented in a way they never have been,” said Phillip.
He said young people are taking the reins of many First Nations and steering new agendas by sheer numbers.
“They are a growing group. They can pretty much sway any election,” Phillip said. He noted the new generation does not carry the same grief of residential schools as the ones before.
“Not to take away from anyone who suffered those horrors, but there’s a great deal to be said for reconciling our present with our past and staying positive to empower our future,” he said. “We need to be mindful of the vast potential of our young people. They are the ones who will hold governments to account and plan for our future.”
Tom said he is taking his future plans one step at a time, but said one lifelong dream has been to reunite the five WSÁNEC (Saanich) nations.