By Shirley Honyust/ Yenatlio
Chief Leslee Whiteye was elected chief of Chippewa of the Thames First Nation on July 27. She is the first female chief elected since Arletta Silver in 1953.
ANISHINABEK NEWS:Would you like to introduce yourself?
Chief Leslee White-Eye: Sure. My name is Leslee Whiteye and I am a proud member of Chippewas of the Thames First Nation. We are located just southwest of London, about 25 km, along the Thames River. We call the Thames River Deshkan Ziibi in our language. We are Anishinabek people – we are Ojibways. I am a mother of three; I have a 19, 11 and nine year-old. I have an amazing husband, Dennis White-Eye and we live here in London, Ontario.
ANIISHINABEK NEWS: What is your own background like, Leslee, and what was it that you feel brought your to where you are today?
Chief: “I’ve been a teacher – I taught in my own community here at Chippewa of the Thames. I started in Kindergarten and I went to Grade 7, to the intermediate division, loved it, and found my career pathway really began there in education and since then that’s been the focus of my work life. Left there and went to the Indigenous Education Coalition, overseeing some programs there for three years which really helped to give me some insight and also network with local First Nation communities and Aboriginal organizations that were partners in the coalition. Then this position came up at the Aboriginal Education Office in the Ministry of Education. It was a new office at the time, in 2006, so I threw my name in the hat not sure exactly what would happen but I ended up getting the job and have been with the Ministry of Education ever since, as of two weeks ago. Now I find myself in the role of Chief of the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation. I’ve only been there for two weeks and it’s been just a huge learning curve. I am excited about it because every day is different, which has always been a dream of mine. I guess what I enjoy most about my career so far is I have been in positions where you can just never expect what is going to happen and that has certainly been the case these past couple of weeks.
ANISHINABEK NEWS: And what do you see yourself doing in this new position?
Chief: Definitely something I took seriously – I knew it was going to be a challenge. There are lots of things that I can be supporting and helping and pushing forward for the nation. I am just new to the job. I’ll figure it out as I go but these two weeks have been amazing. I’m covering a lot of topics, getting a lot of issues but also a lot of successes. So I am happy to be learning right now. Really, it’s just been a big learning curve!
ANISHINABEK NEWS: Let me say congratulations on becoming the first woman chief since 1953. How was that?
Chief: Oh, I’m so happy for that. I don’t know if you know but the only candidates running this round for chief were women. There was Myeengun Henry, but he ended up stepping down. I think he was very supportive of the women running and he wanted to see that happen. So in the end there was only three of us that were running: Jennifer Deleary was one and Betsy Kechego was the other. We knew that no matter what was going to happen we were going to have a woman chief. It was a very exciting time at Chippewa of the Thames!
ANISHINABEK NEWS: So how did you become engaged in the political process?
Chief: It’s been a long road. I have taken this very seriously. I would never have considered it had I not had some of the experiences that I did in the past. My dad is George E. Henry and he has had over 30 years in council, so I have grown up around the political table where he has included us in problem solving getting our feedback on local community but provincial and regional all our lives. So that was probably a big part of the motivation and comfort in taking on a role like this but I also need to say a lot about my upbringing in terms of community volunteerism. I don’t think I would have been this comfortable taking on this role had I not been raised by aunties, uncles, my mom and dad. Theresa Henry is my mom, and they were just always involved so right from the beginning they were volunteers for the pow wow committee. My dad has done environmental stuff in terms of clean up in the community and they have always encouraged us to participate in community events. I remember growing up and walking the Chip-a-thon. I don’t know if you remember that. It was a church fundraiser opportunity where Chippewa members walked from Springbank Park in London all the way back to the ball park in Chippewa.
ANISHINABEK NEWS: Wow, that’s a big walk!
Chief: It’s a long walk, and we were just really young then and we were all excited, because they had prizes for best dressed bike, and it really brought our community together; we had lots of fun! So those things, being in the community and seeing the benefit of people gathering, supporting and volunteering, I realized really quickly that a lot of our getting together really happens because people just have big hearts and they want to get together and organize things and do things through volunteerism.
That led to my involvement in the political side of things because my first political appointment was on the Recreation and Culture Committee.
ANISHINABEK NEWS: That goes along with education.
Chief: Yes, sure it does. When I became a teacher at Chippewa of the Thames that’s when I first became a committee member. As I was learning to become a teacher I was pretty heavily involved in the school’s Children’s Pow Wow, so that led to me being heavily involved in the Community Competition Pow Wow. I realized really quickly working with youth then working with youth and then working on the Pow-Wow Committee that I could lend my voice to Chief and Council and Recreation and Culture. So I guess what I’m painting here is a long 40 plus year of being involved through my parents and my family to a point where I feel very comfortable that this was a good choice for me to make at this time in my life, to put my name in the hat and run for chief.
ANISHINABEK NEWS: Well I think it’s a good choice for you as well. What type of things are you working on presently? Are people bringing their issues to you?
Chief: Sure. There hasn’t been an onslaught or anything at the door, but there are individual issues that people are wanting to have addressed so I am working that out. Just being new I am not sure of the process of all that and I don’t want to in any way confuse the administration on the political side, so that’s the work that I still have to do, in learning how best to navigate the requests that come in, and the inquiries over the past two weeks. I am just starting to work that out with staff, so, yes, there are members coming to the door asking some answers and also making inquiries.
ANISHINABEK NEWS: What advice would you give to young people now considering their options in terms of education, their future, their career path, their future in politics and being a little bit political?
Chief: We really do need their voices at the table, so I don’t want to have to push that on them but I want to definitely encourage that they do become involved in civic issues. They should become more involved in civic issues. One of the things that has been talked about is developing a youth leadership council so there is definitely work already being done on that. I would totally support that, and part of the way I could support it being in this role is that I have lots of opportunities to bring people with me to see and observe what we do in the community as political leaders. For example, one of the recent opportunities that I didn’t take advantage of that way is that we were invited to attend a training session on the United Nations Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples. I wish now I had brought youth leaders with me; it was a really important thing to hear about the work that has been done by the United Nations to get to this point of having a declaration. So there are things that I can do in this role now that I can bring people with me and so we can start to stand them up earlier to begin that work of thinking about whether they could run for chief and council.
ANISHINABEK NEWS: Do you have a youth rep on your band council?
Chief: No we don’t have a formal seat on council for youth—it’s one of those things that we are going to have to work out with chief and council, to figure out how to formalize their voice. So it’s definitely one of those areas that we will have to figure out in the next couple of months. I feel like the clock is ticking already. Two years is going to go by really quickly and I would hate for us to be still figuring it out still a year from now. But the council is amazing so I don’t see that happening. They are so gung ho and they are so wanting to commit to a broader communications approach to the community members being involved, I am excited about the discussions with them coming forward.
ANISHINABEK NEWS: What would you say are the range of ages and stages of your council members, are they working, are they retired?
Chief: We have all of that range, for sure. I think there are five new councillors. I think maybe fourof them are brand new, so it will be their first term, but the benefit of having four of them return from the previous council is that their corporate knowledge comes with them. And then we have my dad that comes with them so he has all the knowledge of working in the nation for more than several decades. So we have a good mix, I think, of different experiences, different backgrounds, different skills. I am really excited about the leadership here that we have at Chippewa in that regard. There will be a lot of perspectives that we can immediately draw on at the council table. We need to be conscious of the voices that still aren’t there and then figure out what we are going to do to reach out them.
One of those voices in our community is going to be those facing disabilities, maybe our LGBQ communities and there are probably others that that we really need to be thinking about.
ANISHINABEK NEWS: Well you have already answered my next question basically, but how do you envision the next five or ten years of your life?
Chief: I am just a constant learner so definitely never feel accomplished or anywhere close to that. One of the things that I am excited about and this began prior to my new role as chief, is I am dedicated to thinking about Indigenous education. So one of the things that I have been involved with and it is just starting, is we just actually had our founding meeting of the Council of Indigenous Education so I am excited about that endeavour and where that will go, particularly now with my role and what that relationship can be and how I can support that. I am an avid reader; I love learning more about education and I have a huge passion for curriculum writing. I told my council if I wasn’t going to be doing this I would try to find my way working with communities and curriculum development. If that didn’t pan out I love photography and I love facilitation. I love to find ways that I can help be that facilitator to get people together and talk with one another. So, with all of that, I still have my family that needs me front and centre, so I need to l be supportive of them and be sure that their life goals are being supported by me. So that’s my biggest priority is making sure that they are ready and set to go where they need to go, and want to be, with my support and with Dennis’s, so I would say that would be the key to what is going on with me. I can’t say definitely exactly what could happen but that I am committed to what’s going on with them now.
ANISHINABEK NEWS: Those are worthy issues. I think that we covered everything that I had on my list would you like to add anything?
Chief Leslee White-Eye: Yes. I have had conversations even prior to being in this role, about our communications with members on and off reserve. London has a huge population of members that are Chippewa of the Thames First Nation, so I am excited about talking with my council about how we might be more present in their lives. I don’t know what they answers are there but I know that I welcome any feedback from any listeners who are members from our community that might think and want to brainstorm ways that we might find ourselves together more often, in getting news out to you, or even just gathering as families, maybe in London. So that’s what I would say I want to leave with you is that question I have out there. I don’t want to call it a challenge, it’s also celebratory, right, so I would love to brainstorm with people about that.