04/23/2014 07:00 EDT | Updated 06/23/2014 05:59 EDT

B.C.’s youngest chief balances major development with tradition

Bryce Williams glances down at the boy drawing a Coast Salish eagle design next to him.

“That’s awesome,” he tells Damien Hearl, a 7th-grade member of Tsawwassen First Nation. Hearl smiles and turns back to the drawing he’s been working on intensely for the last hour.

Williams, who trained as a carver in Haida Gwaii, is teaching Coast Salish art to eight boys in his community, which sits roughly thirty kilometres south of downtown Vancouver. They’ve known him for years – as a neighbor, then a babysitter, then a friend.

Now, the young artist is their chief.

At 24, Williams is the youngest chief in B.C. He’s juggling an up-market housing development and the construction of the second-largest mall in Canada with a plan to create a new generation of Tsawwassen artists.

“There might be some skeptics or people that think I can’t handle the job at this young age, but I think I’ve been showing and proving to people that I’m able and capable of serving in this position,” he said. 

Balancing culture and business

Although his training is in art, not business, he’s earned the respect of many of the people he negotiates with in surrounding communities.

“He's a very young man carrying a lot of responsibility, and he's certainly got the support of his community behind him,” said Ian Tate from the Delta Chamber of Commerce. “I find him to be a very approachable, very reasoned leader of his community.”

The soft-spoken chief chooses his words carefully and often refers to his notes when talking about his nation’s economic future, but lights up when he talks about culture.

Borrowing a phrase from his mentor, Haida carver Christian White, Williams said he wants to create “culture-bearers” – a new generation of singers, carvers, weavers, and dancers.

When asked about how he balances culture and business, Williams paused.

“Obviously it’s good to keep the culture alive, but you can’t host those programs and services when you don’t have money to move those things forward, so they’re both very important,” he said.

In the small, close-knit nation, which has a population of 328, those two forces are never far apart.

It’s a three minute walk from the administration office, where Williams shows up to work every day wearing the cedar hat his mother made him, to the presentation centre for Tsawwassen Shores, a new luxury housing development where prices start at $500,000.

The Tsawwassen First Nation (TFN) treaty went into effect on April 3, 2009, making it the first urban self-governing nation in the province. It opened the floodgates for a new era of development – like the mall, a destination retail centre that will be home to major brands like Walmart and Rona when it opens in 2016.

But when it came time for the 2012 election — in which Williams narrowly defeated long-time chief Kim Baird —  many TFN members were concerned that their nation’s economic acceleration would outpace cultural services.

Steven Stark, who’s now a member of the legislature, says he’d heard previous political leaders talk about the importance of culture without following through.

“In the same breath I would hear them say that [those things are] not as important as trying to develop,” he said.

That’s where Williams came in. Though he’s a strong supporter of the development projects Baird put into motion, his election platform centered on revitalizing culture. For many TFN members, his cultural ties were an important deciding factor.

“You could talk white language all day long and sound very sophisticated, but if you don’t have that native culture behind you and talk with the native tongue, you’re not going to get very far,” said Stark.

Support behind the scenes

Williams acknowledges that there have been “some difficulties here and there, and maybe a bit of a learning curve.” But he draws on the support and expertise of his executive council – which includes former chief Tony Jacobs – his legislature, and his staff.

“We have a very unique team standing behind Bryce,” said Stark. “He is young, but we knew that when we elected him. A lot of us talked about it, that Bryce isn’t the only one that makes all the decisions.”

The 24-year-old chief said he thinks a leader is someone who can be the “voice of the people,” but he tends to keep his thoughts to himself. At his nation’s legislative assembly, he sits silently through a tense debate.

Stark remembers a different style when Williams’ father Remo sat on the legislature. “Remo, he’s a very smart guy, very strong voice,” said Stark. “And Bryce is [more] conservative. He watches. He’s quieter, but he uses his words wisely. He has that open ear.”

Guiding force for younger members

Williams said he relies on the teachings of his ancestors — who include famous Haida artist Charles Edenshaw and former Tsawwassen chief Russell Williams — to guide him in his artistic and political lives.  

He’s also becoming a guiding force for younger Tsawwassen members.

Peggy McCleod, who facilitates the weekly book-and-drawing club Williams runs with another senior administrator, said it’s unprecedented for leaders to have this much contact with young people.

“Having that time the way they do every week, with one of the two leaders, I think really goes a long way to speak to how valued they are,” she said.

His art students look forward to his class. They’d rather learn about native culture than math, and now they have a new arsenal of Coast Salish designs to add to their Futurama and Spiderman doodles during class.

“Part of being a Haida artist or a Coast Salish artist is being willing to pass on those traditions,” says Williams. “It uplifts me to be able to pass along some of that knowledge.”

This series on aboriginal youth produced in partnership with the Reporting in Indigenous Communities course at the UBC Graduate School of Journalism.