Members of the Esquimalt First Nation are mourning the death of Chief Andy Thomas, who was their hereditary leader for 47 years.
He died unexpectedly at his home early Saturday.
Known also as Seenupin, he was a humble man dedicated to the well-being of his people. He helped create the structure of the Assembly of First Nations and was on the executive of the First Nations of South Island Tribal Council.
A statement from the Esquimalt Nation said Thomas, often referred to as Chief Andy, was a champion of Indigenous rights.
“He was a devoted husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, brother, uncle, friend, partner, teacher and colleague,” the statement said. “And he embraced these responsibilities with pride and honour.”
When Thomas was honoured with the Chancellor’s Community Recognition Award in 2007 by Royal Roads University, he was lauded for his years of work to make the Esquimalt Nation thrive.
“For the Esquimalt Nation, Chief Thomas has helped guide business ventures and economic development with the Kasapsum Development Corp., including acquiring the West Bay Marina properties,” the university said at the time. “He is credited with keeping the Esquimalt Nation government solvent through sound fiscal leadership.
“Chief Thomas is active in promoting Coast Salish heritage within public schools and is helping keep alive ancient Aboriginal teachings and rites passed down through the millennia.”
Thomas was part of an event March 20 to unveil downtown signs that included place names from Lekwungen territory — home to both the Esquimalt and Songhees people.
Greater Victoria School Board chairwoman Edith Loring-Kuhanga, a member of the Gitxsan Nation, said she is devastated by the news of Thomas’s death. She said that he and his wife, Mary Ann, have been “incredible leaders.”
Loring-Kuhanga said that when she decided to run as a school board trustee, she approached Thomas to ask for his blessing because she was vying for a seat in his traditional territory.
“He really wanted to make sure that there was a First Nations person at the board table who understood what their kids were going through, and who could stand and fight for them at the board table,” she said.
“I said: ‘I will do my best.’ ”
She said Thomas leaves a strong legacy.
“Andy, being a hereditary chief of the community for as many years as he had been, was very well respected, very well known,” Loring-Kuhanga said.
“He loved his community, he was devoted to his community, devoted to his culture and to maintaining their identity in the complex world we have today.
“He will be dearly missed, not only by his family and his community, but by First Nations all over Vancouver Island.”
Esquimalt Mayor Barb Desjardins said Thomas meant a lot to the municipality.
“Andy Thomas has been somebody that I’ve admired, I respect so much and he has always been a great adviser,” she said.
Desjardins said she and Thomas were on several committees together. “He always provided words of wisdom. He was a very special man,” she said.
“This is a huge loss for our community and for the region because Andy had so much history and understanding, and he always brought us back to Earth and conveyed messages that resonated with you.”
Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps said: “Chief Thomas was a champion for his people. Grappling with the ongoing legacy of colonialism, he became dedicated to ensuring a prosperous future for the youth of his community.”
Details of a memorial for Thomas will be announced soon.
Thoughts and prayers for the Thomas family can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.