FREDERICTON — The new leader of a New Brunswick First Nation said he's proud to be elected as the first openly LGBTQ chief in Atlantic Canada — though he said he's more well-known in his community for his leadership skills and creativity.
Allan (Chicky) Polchies Jr. identifies as two-spirited, an umbrella term referring to Indigenous people who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or someone who has both a masculine and a feminine spirit.
"I'm proud of who I am. I always have been and I always will be,'' he said during a phone interview Sunday. "Our community has risen the bar when it comes to diversity.''
Polchies was elected as chief of St. Mary's First Nation last week, unseating incumbent Candice Paul, who had held the position for 14 years.
St. Mary's is the second-largest Wolastoqiyik or Maliseet community in New Brunswick with a band membership of about 2,000 people.
I'm proud of who I am. I always have been and I always will be.
For Polchies, his recent appointment points to progress within their society, saying that he hopes the outpouring of support during and after the election can help reassure young people who may be struggling with their sexuality or identities.
"This sends a message to all those young people that may think that it's not OK to be who you are: to be two-spirited, to be however you want to label yourself,'' he said. "But I know that I've inspired people to be who they want to be, and know that they have a voice and they have a purpose.
"That makes me so, so, so excited.''
Polchies and his partner of eight years are the foster parents of a toddler.
As he lays the foundation for his new role, he pinpoints health-care access, economic development and community opportunities as top-of-mind issues within the First Nation.
Access to mental health care in particular is a challenge, said Polchies, who was born and raised in the community and previously worked as an event organizer and a band councillor.
St. Mary's First Nation has a mental wellness worker who services the community every two weeks, but Polchie said he would like to hire full-time mental health staff and build community programs to help those grappling with mental illness.
"In this day and age, there's lots of folks struggling with mental health, and PTSD, and addictions,'' he said, adding that problems with accessibility is widespread across the country.
"This is a shame that our governments do not focus highly on these issues.''
Plans to invest in youth, elders
Polchies also said he wants to invest in the community's young and old. By working with youth, he said he'd like to build mentorship programs that would encourage them to succeed and excel in their school, work and personal lives.
On the other hand, St. Mary's First Nation doesn't have a senior's home, which is something Polchies said he'd like to change.
"They're folks that we hold highly, and in regard,'' he said of the community's seniors and elders. "We all get older, so it's going to affect us all.''
Reconciliation and environmental causes are also at the top of mind for Polchies.
We all get older, so it's going to affect us all.
While Canada has taken strides in recent years to address issues in Indigenous communities, Polchies said that there's still a long way to go in terms of reconciliation and respecting Indigenous land.
He said education is the key to Canadians understanding who Indigenous people are and what they advocate for, adding that misunderstanding and misinformation is what's keeping reconciliation from moving forward.
"Indigenous people are the landkeepers, and when we champion an environmental issue, we're just protecting your children, your grandchildren, their grandchildren,'' he said.
"It's not just about us: it's about everyone.''
Twelves band councillors were elected last week as well, with the new chief and council taking office next month.
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