Chief Crystal Smith’s speech: cheers, and tears

Our Alliance chair, Crystal Smith, elected chief councillor of the Haisla Nation, spoke at the BC Natural Resources Forum in Prince George Jan. 30. More than a few in the audience were moved to tears. . . .

The following transcript of her speech has been in a few places very lightly edited or condensed, for clarity. Like all transcripts, though, it does not adequately capture the emotion and spirit of the speech. (We hope soon to have a video of her speech, as well, but it is still being processed.)

I was talking to our team the other night and I was reflecting back on what it was like, growing up at home.

I get often asked in reports and newspapers what that was like, and I tell you that, as an 11-year-old, 12-year-old girl, walking on our front street from my grandparents’ house, to my basketball practice, I would pass our old band office every day, and think, ‘I’m going to be either a janitor, or an assistant to somebody, and that’s the only place that I can work.’

Now I am standing in front of a sold-out crowd, where I am shaking crazily, up here, in front of you all, as the elected chief councillor of my very proud nation.

So, with that, I want to take the opportunity to take a selfie! And if we can please have the lights turned on, if that’s not an issue, so I can take a selfie with all of you guys.

On went the lights, to applause from the audience. The selfie was duly taken. And Chief Crystal introduced members of the Haisla council team. Then she continued:

I had approximately a 20-page speech written and prepared. And I read it the other night. I looked at it, and thought, ‘I can’t read this.’

How many of you in your life, and I do this so often, in the last two or three years: Can I see a show of hands on who has seen my face on social media, heard me in a radio interview, seen me on the TV, or heard me speak. Wow! (As a forest of hands went up.) Wow!

I figured, you’ve heard the messages as the chief councillor. You’ve seen why our Nation does what we do. You’ve heard about the poverty, the message of moving from managing poverty to managing prosperity. You’ve heard that hope-and-determination talk.

But, I was dressed in my chief councillor clothing and you’ve seen my outfits in our panels: professional, casual business wear. And I figured, last night, as I travelled into Prince George, Councillor Kevin Stewart commented that it looked like I was in disguise, that I didn’t want to be seen, but in reality, this is me: Everyday yoga pants. I swear, if I could make Lululemon a staple of the Haisla Nation attire, I would.

I figured, if you guys have heard those speeches, and you’ve heard me speak from the heart when I answered questions, why not let people know the real meaning behind . . . the hard decisions of our people that have gotten us to where we are. And I am simply the person voicing our team experience.

When Alcan first came to Kitimat . . . so many councillors worked so diligently to ensure that our people would succeed and have a share and a say. And I am so damn proud to say that we accomplished that with LNG Canada, to help them make their final investment decision. The single largest private-investment decision (in Canadian history) and it’s being built in Haisla territory.

But it’s not only elected leaders that take those visions and make them reality. One of our hereditary chiefs told all our elected leaders that with all this wealth and opportunity to be mindful of our neighbours. And we have extended the doors of Haisla territory for employment to our neighbouring communities, to ensure that we do share that opportunity, we share that prosperity, we share what we see in our community today.

You heard where I’d envisioned that I’d end up, either a janitor or an assistant in our band office, working for our people. I never, ever, without a doubt in my mind, felt that I grew up in poverty. My life was made so amazing by my grandparents. My grandfather was a victim of residential schools. But they made mine and my twin sisters’ lives, the most memorable. I didn’t think we were poor. We had traditional food every day, growing up. . . . I never thought that I was poor. I never thought that my life was affected by the generational traumas that each of our communities experience. But I grew up poor.

I had the thought that some of my teachers in high school thought that I’m going to be nothing but a statistic: I’m going to get pregnant early, going to be on social assistance; I’m just going to be another burden on the taxpayers of Canada. So I went to school thinking, why am I even here? Sit at the back of the class, not participate. I’m supposed to be stupid, right? I can’t participate in any of these academic courses.

I went to . . . our community school and would constantly hear the message of ‘First Nations schools don’t have quality education.’ They’re a lower standard in comparison to any other school, so I came out of that school thinking that.

I was so fortunate to have my twin sister by my side. We gave each other strength to be able to get through. I went to a local community college for one semester and then dropped out. And then I became the assistant to our first-ever chief councillor, Dolores Pollard, and then I was the assistant to Ellis Ross. . . .

And when I started becoming a part of this, the leadership, it was absolutely to listen to what the visions were, where they were going and what the thought process was. And I asked Ellis, ‘Can I come listen to you speak?’ And I think I was the only First Nations person in that entire room. And it was probably as packed as this. And it honestly brought tears to my eyes. The reason why he did what he did was because of people like me.

I haven’t had an easy go of anything. I lost my mum to cancer when she was only 42. My twin and I raised our nine-year-old sister and my then 16- 17-year-old brother. I lost my grandmother when I was very young; I was 15 when she passed away. And I’ve experienced suicide. First-hand. So if you think about everything we talk about, that everything that I’ve talked about in the media when it comes to poverty, I’ve been there. Suicide, been there. Not to get anything in educational background, been there.

I don’t want our people to continue living THAT life.

I tried to ask, rather than seeing my face up there on those screens, that you would see a cute picture of a very chubby, vivacious, loving, energetic, baby, who’s my grandson. The other picture is of myself and my two daughters and my grandson at my graduation last April, when I finally graduated college with a diploma in business administration

The pictures:

The speech continued:

I talk often about all the benefits, the relationships that the nation has been able to establish with government, with proponents, and that I’ve seen these effects firsthand. I’ve felt these impacts firsthand.

My daughter’s 17, she’ll be graduating in about a year or so. And she’s got a two-year-old boy that she’s going to have to think about when she goes to college. I had a conversation with her about my keynote (speech) and how I’m going to gather my thoughts and have the strength to stand in front of you and not be nervous and all over the place.

I shared my story with her and I told her as I was growing up and I asked her, “Do you have hope?” She said, ‘Yeah.’ ‘Because everything that we have within the nation now, you can do whatever you want. You can be whatever you want to be. And Zavier (the grandson) will be taken care of in every way.’

And hearing my 17-year-old daughter say that, our nation is not doing the wrong thing. We are doing everything right. I support projects, and I’m not scared, by any means, to say that. We have seen the positive impacts.

My 26-year-old sister was renovicted from her home. Twenty-six. She just moved into her own, very own, mortgaged home, on reserve. Twenty-six years old. I am so proud of her. This independence is what we want.

When we talk about a gap, every First Nations person in this room, when we talk about that ‘gap’, knows what I’m talking about: On a scale, Canada ranks ninth in this world when it comes to living standards. You come to our reserve and you compare that same scale, we drop to 63. That’s a 54-point gap when it comes to (comparison with) every average Canadian. That gap is what we’re closing. We have programs and services that are enhanced to meet our people’s needs.

I know that I was supposed to cut this quite short and that I stated I’m actually tired of listening to my own voice, at times, so I told our communications team that I would share my story with you and that we would share some videos with you of our people sharing their story.

Chief Crystal then showed the audience this video:

Watch it at http://bit.ly/2UmKfXX

That speaks volumes. Not hearing ME say it, but our people; every aspect, every generation in there.

I’m proud to say that two of those are my family: Ramona (Adams), I get to see her at KVI when I go there; and the pride that I see there and the difference in her personality. Danny (Paul) is my uncle. He just got back from Mexico and taking his whole family. . . .

This is what we need more of in our communities. We need to heal our people and I’m absolutely unapologetic when I say that; I’m not stating something that’s wrong.

No other government, no other level of government has ever been able to assist our people in the way that we need it. It’s through economic development, economic reconciliation, that we’re going to find the path back to our true identities, and revitalizing our culture as indigenous people.

These are the impacts on the ground that I’ve seen. For the first time ever, WE fund a culture and language program. Nobody else. Our council decided, as a mandate from our people, to save our culture and our language. We invested, heavily, and for the first time ever, to have that department up and running. And the growth that I’ve been able to witness in our first employee. . . .

She has grown, leaps and bounds, and I envy that so much because she speaks our language. She speaks more than I do, and she’s finding roots, our Haisla culture roots, of what it means to be herself. And that strength is absolutely amazing to witness. So I can picture her and I can picture 1,900 of our band members being able to reignite that identity and that strength and we are able to do that on our own.

We also have . . . funded programs that we provide for our people, in the manner that suits their needs. We also enhance programs that are existing.

I also have another video of another program that our councillor, Kevin Stewart helped initiate. And I think this speaks volumes and I’m sure that most of you watch CTV news but I think this video also speaks volumes in the terms of what we’ve been able to accomplish as a nation on our own terms, to meet the needs of our people.

Chief Crystal now showed a CTV News video about Haisla member James Harry, and his outreach work on Vancouver’s Downtown East Side.

You can watch it via CTV here:  http://bit.ly/2v8jMCz  (It is preceded there by a commercial that was not shown at the Prince George event.)

Thank you. . . .

Chief Crystal now received a long standing ovation, as pictured at the beginning of this page.

(Posted here 04 February 2020)