Jason Louie’s life was about to change.
The 36-year-old member of the Lower Kootenay Band, who had spent 16 years as a teacher’s assistant and Ktunaxa language instructor at the Yaqan Nukiy School, thought he was running for re-election as a councillor in 2010. He never intended to become Chief.
But then he received the most votes.
“That’s when life changed for me, and not necessarily for the better,” Louie told the Star.
“Leading up to that point life was totally different. Life was peaceful in a lot of ways. I’m a private person, I don’t go out much. But when I walked into my inauguration, it was unlike anything I’d ever experienced — the auditorium was full, there were cameras flashing, and I was not used to any of that.”
The election took a toll on his family, and bitterly divided his community, which currently has approximately 130 members living on the reserve just outside Creston.
“I remember being at a Christmas party getting texts and phone calls of congratulations, and then things died down so I went hunting. While I was out there I looked at the social media on my phone and the same people who were just congratulating me were now bashing me.”
The band’s former chief Chris Luke Sr. had been serving for 30 years when he chose not to run for re-election, paving the way for Louie’s ascent to power. That didn’t sit well with some people, and the in-fighting in his band has yet to be resolved. But Louie doesn’t carry any resentment, and is even on good terms with his predecessor.
“There were allegations of me attacking his character, but I haven’t told anyone this before: privately he contacted me after the election and wished me luck. From time to time I still chat with him because he has a wealth of experience.”
Meanwhile, Louie’s got work to do.
Call him Nasookin
Though Louie’s official title is Chief, he feels that word often has negative connotations and colonial baggage, so he prefers going with the Ktunaxa name for leader, which is Nasookin. Now 43 years old, he’s seven years into his career and his accomplishments include constructing both a new school and roundhouse on his reserve.
As the head of the Lower Kootenay Band, Louie also sits on the executive council for the Ktunaxa Nation — along with three other band leaders in B.C., and two in the U.S. The most ambitious move he’s made since taking power was purchasing Ainsworth Hotsprings.
“It was absolutely huge. Like most people as a child I went to Ainsworth for day trips, and I could never fathom at the time that one day we would take back what was rightfully ours and have it here for future generations while using it as a teaching tool,” he said.
To that end, they’ve incorporated new names such as the Ktunaxa Grill, the Nasookin Lounge and Spirit Water Spa. When visitors reach their parking lot they’re greeted with a sign welcoming them to Ktunaxa territory. Although some expressed concerns that the band would convert the resort into a casino, that was never considered according to Louie.
“Casinos may generate money, but they generate social issues as well. And the target group are people who can’t afford to be there anyway, who are coming with their rent cheque. Going the route of a casino is something I wouldn’t even consider, because I know how these things operate,” he said.
He said there’s a financial incentive, but it comes at a cost.
“I don’t want to have that kind of guilt or shame on my shoulders, that I was contributing to someone’s despair. It’s tough enough to make a living in this community. I’d rather empower our community if we can.”
‘I see kids who have given up on life’
As one of many elders from the Sinixt and Ktunaxa First Nations, Louie has been intimately involved in a number of SD8 initiatives, including the annual Pow Wow in Creston. He’s worried that aboriginal students are falling through the cracks of the system.
The biggest concern is how quickly they’re losing fluent speakers and elders — they’re down to five speakers in their community.
Though he’s pleased things have been progressing, he still thinks aboriginal education funds across the province aren’t being used the best way they could be.
“Province wide we have all these ab-ed programs, and at the beginning of the school year they hand out this piece of paper asking if you’re Metis or First Nations or self-identified, and if you check any of those boxes that student is worth $10,000.”
He said if you multiply that by the number of students — his band has approximately 30 school-age youth — that’s a lot of money.
“Where’s the money going? Is it going to the preservation and education of indigenous students? No it’s not. When I was on the school board some of that money was being spent on office furniture, on supplies, and it’s not an accurate reflection of what we’re doing for indigenous students.”
He saw a report praising the system that noted the number of graduating aboriginal students is up, but he thinks that statistic is deceiving.
“Stop putting out reports saying how well we’re doing because we’re not doing well. There’s a high drop-out rate, so let’s talk about this kids on the reserves all over the country who aren’t doing well. We’ve obviously come a long way since 15 years ago — but there’s still a long way to go.”
He believes these kids need professional intervention.
“I see kids who have given up on life, and it’s going to take more than a school district program to help. It’s getting to the point where we need mental health services, counselors.”
‘I’m not a performer’
There are pressing crises to deal with in Louie’s community, so he gets frustrated with the small scale of the non-aboriginal community’s engagement.
He’s also annoyed by requests that end up casting him, or his people, as a sideshow.
“The only time people want to talk to us or have us come out is when they want us to sing and dance. I was asked by this lady, for Canada Day, to have dancers come out and bless the ground and it was this hokey crap. We’re so much more than that. I’m not a performer.”
He’s been dealing with racism since he was a child — he had never been into a physical altercation until he moved to a public school in Grade 2 where he was beaten up daily by white kids.
“Then one day I fought back and laid the boots to them, and I got sent to the principal’s office. They called in the kids’ parents and I had to apologize to the parents for beating up their kids, even though nobody said anything for months when I was coming to class with blood all over my face.”
Though he feels racism is less accepted these days, it hasn’t gone anywhere. One memory that stings happened to him after he purchased Ainsworth. He went to a sporting goods store with his wife and was shocked when the staff refused to sell them the clothes they’d collected.
“One of the workers came up to us and said, ‘We’re going to be closing soon’ and I said, ‘What time?’ and she said five o’clock, which was in 15 minutes. Then she said, ‘You need to know that,’ and once you’ve dealt with racism once you know the lingo, you know the body language, the tactics.”
They picked out some outfits anyway, but once they reached the counter nobody would come run the items through the till.
“There was a $400 purchase there, we brought it up, and they wouldn’t let us purchase it. They just wouldn’t come out. We said, ‘We’d like to buy this,’ and they wouldn’t come over. So, being a rez kid at heart, I told them, ‘You’re losing a chance for $400 because you’re choosing to be an ignorant A-hole.’ We left and never went back.”
Raising up warriors
Louie served in the Canadian military from 2004 to 2012 as a reservist, and the warrior spirit is a vital part of his Ktunaxa identity. But it’s his daughter Misty’s flag that hangs over his desk — she voluntarily served with the U.S. Air Force as an intelligence officer.
“It was a personal choice for her, and politically I know about all the controversy around the Iraq wars but as a parent I did then and do now respect her decision to do what she did,” he said.
“When she came back she gifted me this flag and I display it in my office so I can remember who she is as an indigenous woman, a warrior, and she’s my inspiration when days are tough.”
He doesn’t like to fight, but he’s willing to if it’s necessary. On his forearm is a tattoo of an arrow with words that translate to “Crazy Dog,” a name for their warrior culture.
He knows how intimidating he can be.
“A lot of the racism I see is fear-based. When people see me they become afraid. I hate to say it, but sometimes you have to use their fear to your advantage. You say, ‘OK, they fear me so I’m going to use that and find a way for it to help me to cope.’”
‘Let’s talk about truth’
Louie supports the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation report, but said many people are ignoring an important aspect of the process: telling the truth, which means acknowledging the social realities of indigenous people and the fact they’re being governed by an “outdated, racist and sexist thing called the Indian Act.”
To demonstrate how outrageously anachronistic the Indian Act is, he pulled up some quotes from it on his phone.
“This is from Section 12: ‘A person means an individual other than an Indian’. This is still how we operate! So any time they’re talking about a person in the Indian Act, it means someone other than an Indian.”
He was also shocked to hear Prime Minister Justin Trudeau say First Nations bands need “to lead” before they can receive funding.
“I don’t know what he and the government think we’ve been doing. We’ve become the masters of making something out of nothing, making the best out of a very bad situation.
“We have been leading, leading under some horrible circumstances, but they constantly dangle funding to a bunch of poor people and make them dance and sing.”
The hoopla around Canada 150 also showed him how out of touch many Canadians are — the Ktunaxa have been around for 10,000 years.
“In this celebration of 150, they want us to come in with the feathers and the singing but it’s demeaning to me.
“If we’re going to celebrate, let’s do it in a way that’s respectful and inclusive of indigenous cultures. Singing and dancing is just a small portion of what we are — we’re scholars, we’re artists, we’re warriors.”