Susan Miller knows she has her work cut out for her as new chief of the Katzie First Nation.
But with three decades of administrative experience in band offices in the Lower Mainland, (Katzie, Tsawwassen, Kwantlen, Kwikwetlem and the Sto:Lo Nation in Chilliwack), she knows what she’s getting into.
“I understand the dynamics it takes to run an administrative office.”
But now she’s back with her own band, helping the Katzie First Nation as it works its way through the treaty process and seeks a new future.
Miller, 51, from the band’s reserve in Langley, was elected Oct. 25 in a runoff vote to settle a tied election. She won the final count with 79 votes over Peter A. James, who received 69 votes.
She’d run years previously, but this time without other duties to worry about, she was able to focus.
The election was necessary following the resignation of Ed Pierre as chief in August.
While she’s happy she’s won, it was a lot of hard work.
“Unfortunately, in our community, we still suffer from voting in our chiefs and councils, based on popularity as opposed to experience. I had to work really hard to gain the votes that I did because I don’t have a large family.”
With the vote settled, following a brief swearing in ceremony Wednesday, Miller is now trying to make a difference from her tiny office in the band’s headquarters on the Katzie’s Pitt Meadows reserve, sandwiched between Pitt Meadows and Maple Ridge.
“When I got here on Monday, it was like a cemetery in here.” Office doors were throughout the building and people not talking to each other. She was told to always use her key and never leave her office unlocked.
“I feel like I’m in a prison. This is a community. It needs to come back to being a community.”
The discord showed during the swearing in ceremony, when one member accused councillors of not governing for the entire band and for favouring friends and relatives.
Miller’s term only lasts until February, but she plans on running again then for another two-year term, so she can help heal the reserve and the office that a few months ago almost closed down.
“My goal is to start to change that, to start to heal that.
“I believe that I know a lot of the things that need to be done. My challenge from the community is how do I make those things happen.”
She wants council to become more focused on the community and the band rather than on internal matters. She told spectators at her swearing in that she would be fair and honest and won’t abandon them.
In the next few weeks, she also wants to discuss revising the election code in order to make band councillors more accountable and easier to recall.
She wants councillors to focus more on the community and band rather than on internal matters and wants the general population to be better informed.
“In First Nations communities, chief and council are responsible to present budgets, to present work plans, to present progress reports. We have very many interests throughout our traditional territory.
“Our general community member does not know what’s going on, things that we’re working on.”
Part of that process includes a general band meeting of the entire Katzie First Nation, called or Nov. 20.
One of the Katzie First Nation’s priorities is negotiating a treaty with provincial and senior governments that will give the nation the ability to run its own affairs. That process is currently at Stage 4, with an agreement in principle and is now awaiting response from senior governments.
Moving from the Indian Act to self government will take work and community consultation. That means getting people involved in whatever way possible, either through family meetings, individual meetings, conferences.
Negotiating a treaty requires shifting mindsets, moving from the paternalism of the Indian Act, to operating as an autonomous entity, with a treaty in place.
“When you have the ability to begin to truly govern yourself when it comes to land use, law making, education, the whole world just opens up to you.
“This won’t work if the community’s not involved. My job is to open the doors of the Katzie, to bring community members in … and to develop their vision and belief for the future.”
Her priorities though, are more immediate.
She wants to become a “true” partner with school board and Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows and RCMP and not just be asked to appear for opening ceremonies.
She knows the band also faces a drug and alcohol problem and wants to make “significant” changes and provide services to address that.
In the next few weeks, sod will be turned on the band’s new community health building.
“This needs to become a very user friendly environment. I believe we can make those changes in a short amount of time. That’s not my challenge. My challenge is to sustain it.
“There’s always good will at the beginning. But if you want to continue it, I’ve got to practise what I preach.”
Foster mom sits in on swearing ceremony
When Katzie First Nation chief Susan Miller was sworn in on Wednesday, she’d already won over one person in the audience.
Foster mom Ilona Marshall had raised Miller since she was 15 and gave a character reference to the rest of the band based on knowing her for decades.
“I could always count on Susan. She’s strong, sensible and fair. So you are all really fortunate to have her as your chief,” Marshall told the crowd moments after the new chief was installed into office.
Marshall said her foster daughter has been the level-headed type ever since she came into her life.
“What amazed me was the sense and character of this young woman was beyond her years.
Marshall said whenever there was an issue, even during the teen years, they sat down and discussed it and worked out agreements.
“And she always kept her word.”
Marshall was in Langley at the time and was a single mom with two of her own daughters. When Miller joined her family, it was a good fit. Marshall was in university at the time and having her around helped as Marshall completed her education and started her career with the federal government.
“I couldn’t have done that without Susan.”
Marshall agreed her foster daughter had the leadership qualities.
“But with such gentleness and kindness and nothing aggressive or hostile – really cuts to the chase.
“I’m just so proud that she’s in my life and will always be part of my life.”