Chief Mike Leach steps down after 36 years of political life

Renewed pride and sense of St'at'imc identity key developments

When Mike Leach was elected in 1976 as the 26-year-old chief of the Lillooet Indian Band, Pierre Trudeau was Prime Minister of Canada, gas was 59 cents a gallon and two unknowns named Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak created a company called Apple Computers.

How things have changed, including the name of the Lillooet Indian Band. Kukwpi7 Mike Leach acknowledges he's changed too, but says his core beliefs remain strong and consistent.

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Last month, Kukwpi7 Mike Leach, now 61, ended his term as Chair of the St'át'imc Chiefs Council (SCC), replaced by Chief Garry John. The end of his term marked the first time in 36 years that he is not formally involved in politics. Now he can devote time to writing a book, establishing his new business Haláw' Consulting 2012 Ltd., and promoting his first musical CD "Mystical Storm Winds of Change" through his new company called Haláw' Entertainment and Arts (HEAL). The CD will be out by May 10 in time for the St'át'imc Gathering being held in N'quatqua through to May 13.

With a laugh he says, "Today, if you come and have a chat with me, I'll talk your ear off. I love being back to that, where I can talk freely and I can be me."

Whatever the issue, whatever the cause, Kukwpi7 Leach has been actively involved as a St'át'imc leader. He was instrumental in establishing community policing through the Stl'atl'imx Tribal Police and negotiating the Haláw' Protocol on forestry in 2007 with Ainsworth Lumber which is now an agreement with Aspen Planers Ltd. As head negotiator and Chair of the SCC, he negotiated, helped ratify and implemented along with the SCC Chiefs the historic May 2011 agreements with BC Hydro that placed St'át'imc communities on a more solid and sustainable economic footing and led to the creation of a new St'át'imc government under the leadership of the St'át'imc Chiefs Council.

During those 36 years, he says there have "obviously" been challenging times, "but the experience for me has been really wonderful.

"I enjoyed it and what I enjoyed the most about being the leader of a community even though people won't believe what I am about to say is that I am constantly about bringing communities together," he said. "My whole being is about bringing the town of Lillooet and the native communities together to work together at all levels. The Haláw' agreement was all about bringing people together, allowing the wars in the woods to be discontinued. That was my goal. It's the same with the Hydro agreement. I view that as a benefit for our communities and a spin-off benefit for Lillooet."

Describing himself as a "leader of change and action," Chief Leach says, "I always wanted people to have a voice, but I also wanted to come to some sort of consensus. Even if we don't always agree with each other, we can still find common ground and move forward from there. It's from change that people move closer together, because if you stay in your respective camps, nothing happens."

Asked about the most significant change he's seen in his T'it'q'et community and the St'át'imc people as a whole, he gives a long, thoughtful response.

"When I first became chief one of my greatest challenges was seeing our people dying on the roads on a regular basis. That raised the issue of alcohol being consumed in public places, for example in our hall up at T'it'q'et. Back then, I participated in that as well, but at some point, I said 'No. That's not good for the people,' because I was seeing a lot of our people dying from drinking and driving."

He then watched with "amazement" as the late elder Eddie Napoleon introduced drug-and-alcohol-free pow-wows at T'it'q'et.

"As a leader, I knew I was going to come face-to-face at some point with that. That was one of the first tests of my mediation skills. So we came to a point that if you're going to rent the hall, you can't rent it with alcohol being served at all hours of the night, it can only be served at certain times because the pow-wows would often be the next day and they would have to smudge the area. It was amazing to watch our community come to an understanding on that. I've seen our people living longer as a result of those kinds of changes."

He continues, "I've seen people going to the Choices program to deal with their mental, physical and emotional challenges and find a new balance. I've seen those changes. The spiritual change that has occurred has been incredible to watch. I've seen people that are proud. They are. I've seen the change from being an Indian to a St'át'imc. I've seen the change from the reserve to T'it'q'et or Ts'kw'aylaxw. I've seen the language come back as well. I've seen the people's perceptions change. You're not a Lillooet Band member, you're St'at'imc or P'egp'ig7lha or T'it'q'et. Those are wonderful things to see happen because they raise pride within people and it's a good pride, it's not negative."

He adds, "Another thing I really pushed for were economic opportunities for our people to be working in the town of Lillooet because when I first came back here, there were very few. Now we have people at the till in the grocery store, in the banks, you name it. You see the St'át'imc people everywhere. It wasn't like that when I first became leader."

He agrees that a generational change is occurring in the St'át'imc leadership.

"There is a transition going on, which is a natural process. What I said to the two new leaders in our community at T'it'q'et - Kevin Whitney and Shelley Leech - is, 'Don't try to walk in my shoes. Walk in your own and I'll be there to give you advice if asked.' That's really important for leaders who have been leaders to take that approach. To just retire a chief who has a lot of experience is to me a huge mistake - you should allow some form of connection to remain to ensure new leaders can access that advice."

Reviewing his decades as a leader, he says the "greatest thing" that happened to him was also a simple thing.

He was attending a pow-wow and was seated beside Chief Des Peters Sr. He was watching a young girl dancing. He remembers her movements were graceful and her regalia was colourful. He also remembers seeing a name on the back of the young dancer's cape and asking Chief Peters what that name was.

"And he said, 'Stl'atl'imx.' And I said, 'What's that?' And he said, 'That's us.' And I said, 'Oh, wow.' And I said, 'That's who I am?' And he said, 'Yeah.' Immediately, that changed me right there. That's when I made it a point to make sure that that name became visible. Having that name out there changed everything spiritually and physically at the same time. It connects us with our ancestors and it's so powerful when a people know who they really are and they shed the colonialism of the past. I see that as the rebirth of our people as a nation."

He concludes, "That one word St'át'imc, that one symbol that speaks to us as a people, to me was the greatest moment in my time as a leader. Tabling the long lost Declaration of the Lillooet Tribe at a Lillooet Tribal meeting around the late '70s or early '80s is right up there with our people's name St'át'imc. All the rest was secondary after that because all the rest was dependent on that."

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