Khelsilem of the Squamish Nation, wearing boots, a bronze overcoat and his hair in his signature ponytail, is standing on land that was taken from his people 100 years ago. As he and I walk a dirt path cutting through trees and blackberry in the shadow of Vancouver’s Burrard Bridge, a woman tells us people have been dumping garbage here. “Thanks, I’ll let our staff know,” Khelsilem tells her. She looks surprised. Staff? Who is this guy?
This land we’re on was once home to the village of Sen̓áḵw. The Sḵwx̱wú7mesh people had houses, an orchard and fish traps here. There were wild cabbages, mushrooms, berries, muskrats, ducks and so much smelt you could rake them up from the water with a stick.
But Sen̓áḵw was in the middle of the settlers’ expanding metropolis. You can see the city encroaching ever closer in a 1908 painting of the village by Emily Carr.
In April 1913, the provincial government flexed its Indian Act powers and forced the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh residents to sell them the land in the middle of a real estate boom for an unfair price. Residents were given two days to leave. When they were gone, the government burned Sen̓áḵw.
The Squamish Nation fought for decades to get their land back. In 2003, 10.5 acres of the 80-acre government-designated reserve were returned to their original inhabitants.
And now, here where Khelsilem shows me around, the nation has something big in the works: a new village of about 6,000 homes.
Unlike the glassy skyscrapers that dominate the creekside, the new Sen̓áḵw — over a century after its namesake was razed to the ground — will shout that Vancouver is an Indigenous place through Sḵwx̱wú7mesh design. The project will generate up to $20 billion for the 4,000-member nation over the course of the next century.
“It’s not about listening to us anymore,” Khelsilem tells me. “It’s about watching us.”
Khelsilem, a councillor of the Squamish Nation, has been instrumental in unrolling these grand plans. He’s also spearheaded the creation of his Nation’s non-profit housing society Hiy̓ám̓ ta Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, which translates to “The Squamish are Coming Home.” At the same time, his nation has partnered with the Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations to redevelop massive sites that will transform the city’s west side, such as the 90-acre Jericho Lands and 21-acre Heather Lands.
This makes Khelsilem, at 31 years of age, both a regional power player and cultural lightning rod as ancestral inhabitants of the land — still among the largest landowners in Metro Vancouver — go about re-staking their claim.
Indigenous leaders often face scrutiny and expectations that non-Indigenous leaders are spared. When Squamish Chief Ian Campbell ran for Vancouver mayor, someone from a rival party called him “a developer wolf in First Nation’s clothing.”
Kitsilano residents near the Sen̓áḵw land were upset in 2009 when the Squamish Nation erected an electronic billboard on their land, one even going on TV to say, “It makes me feel terrible.” If that’s all it took for a fuss, how might they respond to the 11 towers of Sen̓áḵw? One of Vancouver’s former chief planners already shared his view: “Too much.”
A burden has fallen on intermediaries like Khelsilem and his generation of Indigenous leaders. There’s been a recent rush towards reconciliation, and many Canadians and institutions are in a hurry to figure out what that means and how to act.
Khelsilem seems in a hurry, too. He was elected a director of the Vancity credit union this past spring, established a Sḵwx̱wú7mesh immersion course at Simon Fraser University to revitalize his language, gave speeches on Burnaby Mountain to protest the Trans Mountain pipeline, led a slate of young Squamish leaders to win seats on their nation’s council and rallied Squamish voters to help the NDP’s Bowinn Ma win a swing riding in the last provincial election. (This election, he’s helping her once again.) Proudly queer, he even finds the time to put on high heels and perform vogue.
As we chat on topics from real estate to Indigenous land governance, Khelsilem speaks concisely and confidently with no ums or ahs, referencing dates and names by memory. I learn what many others have told me, that he’s an engaging teacher. It’s no wonder he’s in high demand as a speaker. For two years running, Vancouver Magazine has placed him on its annual list of the city’s most powerful people — a mostly white list, full of CEOs and cabinet ministers.
In Vancouver, the people who have a hand in big real estate dealings in their 20s are usually the children of Asian tycoons or locally-spawned family companies. Khelsilem entered this stage without a college degree. In fact, he dropped out of high school before finishing Grade 12. Yet by the time he was 28, in 2017, he’d been elected Squamish’s youngest councillor. And now he has a part to play in transforming both Vancouver’s skyline and its political landscape.
How did he get here? As we walk through the blackberry brambles, he tells me. It started with a lot of anger.
Khelsilem always spoke up because he didn’t like the idea that politics is only for politicians. His idea of politics? “That we’re all involved, we’re all trying to solve problems.”
While many millennials turned to blogs in their teen years to write about anime, fashion or high-school drama, Khelsilem decided to take on colonization. Its lasting effects seemed to touch every aspect of his life growing up on the North Shore in Squamish communities.
He was angry at his settler public school in North Vancouver for teaching a European view of history and turning people into what he called “drones” for jobs.
He was angry at the Squamish Nation Council for not doing more to revitalize Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, their language. He was angry that when he spoke up, they often told him things like “you don’t understand the complexity of this.”
Taylor McCarthy, who is also Sḵwx̱wú7mesh and a millennial like Khelsilem, remembers going to council meetings where most of the people were over 35.
“I felt a bit out of place,” she says. “My mother or my grandmother would be handed an info sheet, and they wouldn’t hand me one because I was too young. But I’m like, I’m here to learn about the issues as well.”
Rather than getting updates from the community, she’d often read about them in newspapers like the North Shore News or the Squamish Chief.
Khelsilem was also frustrated with Squamish career politicians, how some elected officials also served as nation staff and the lack of transparency when it came to information and spending.
He published nighttime posts while others slept, challenging leaders in his own community, but also colonialism and the creation of Canada at large. He was angry at Christianity for being used to “civilize” his people, angry at elections for trying to make settler government look legitimate, angry at Indigenous tourism for manufacturing “authentic” experiences like salmon dinners.
When he was 16, he wrote a piece called “Hollywood Indians North: Stop Trying So Hard!” for the Indigenous youth magazine Redwire. It begins: “Pow wows, tourist shops, totem poles. Next we need to be handing our cedar strips to foreigners at the airport. (Oh goodie! I can really feel like a proud aboriginal then…)”
The name of Khelsilem’s blog was a question he asked himself as an Indigenous person brought up in a settler society: “Liberated Yet?”
Khelsilem had already earned a reputation for seriousness beyond his years. When he was 12, when he went by his English name Dustin Rivers, he showed up at a youth engagement event on his reserve in a suit that was too big for him. “When we found out how old he was,” said Ginger Gosnell-Myers, one of the organizers, “we started calling him Old Man Rivers.”
“Most of my peers weren’t giving a shit about this stuff,” said Khelsilem, who understands that teens have other things on their minds and wouldn’t likely be attending council meetings like him. But his family wasn’t surprised.
Until he was seven, Khelsilem was raised by his paternal grandmother, Audrey Rivers, who was like a mother to them growing up. She was the one who gave him the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh name X̱elsílem (Khelsilem) to carry, one of three names he received in 2011.
“She was a very regal, very poised woman with a lot of kindness for people,” says Khelsilem. “But she was also super fierce, strong willed and righteous in her values.”
Audrey Rivers’ husband was Frank Rivers Sr., who also served on the nation’s council, and her father was Andy Paull, a well-known Sḵwx̱wú7mesh leader, lobbyist, longshoreman and lacrosse coach who was trained as a lawyer, but refused to be called to the bar because it would mean giving up his Indian status. Calling himself a “lawyer without a ticket,” he persisted as a respected authority on Indigenous law who could quote cases chapter and verse. The papers called him “Canada’s Indian conscience.”
On his mother’s side, great-great-grandfather Sam Scow of the Kwakwaka’wakw was a hereditary chief who fought the potlatch ban and was jailed for four months at Oakalla Prison for breaking it. The evidence used to convict him? That he shared an apple.
“Some families probably grow up and don’t think that politics is interesting or useful,” says Khelsilem. “But my family understood political action as a noble calling.”
Khelsilem’s outspokenness wasn’t limited to his blog. In high school, he had a chance to criticize his history teacher and public education on CBC.
In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized on behalf of Canada for the damage of residential schools and failing Indigenous people “so profoundly.”
The CBC wanted a high-school student’s perspective on the apology and invited Khelsilem as a guest on the morning show. Grandmother Audrey Rivers had attended the St. Paul’s Residential School in North Vancouver, just up the hill from where Khelsilem had lived with her.
Khelsilem was a student at Carson Graham Secondary in North Vancouver, where his favourite subjects were history, law and social studies. But “the textbooks talked about Indigenous people as though they were all extinct,” Khelsilem recalls. “All the photos would be in black and white. The whole section on culture was in past tense: the Coastal Salish people would have potlatches, they used to hunt and gather food from the territory, they used to fish.
“And I was like, I went fishing last weekend! I went to a potlatch two weeks ago! It was completely lacking contemporary perspective. You put the narrative together and a lot of people must think: they must all be dead.”
He wasn’t shy to share his views on air. “I said there’s still a problem because our history classes don’t teach the true history. We spend more time learning about Egyptians and Greeks than we do our own history here in Canada.
“The section on residential schools at the time had one paragraph on residential schools. It was half a page on the section on First Nations’ history. That’s what they were teaching. And I said this is unacceptable.”
“My teacher was listening to the interview and he told me after, hey, we had a whole day on residential schools! He was patting himself on the back. So I knew back then that we still had a long way to go.”
Khelsilem started reading about other models of learning and came across a book called Field Day: Getting Society Out of School. It asked, “Does institutionalizing our children for six hours a day, five days a week, really bring out the best in them?” Inspired at the prospect of independent, directed learning, he dropped out of public school.
Khelsilem turned his attention to learning Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, and it wasn’t long before he began teaching what he knew. At the time in 2009, there were around 10 fluent speakers of Sḵwx̱wú7mesh. He wanted to help make more.
During one of the first lessons he led, he placed a drum, a knife, a loonie, a toy car and a set of keys on a classroom table. These were his tools, not a chalkboard. He and his students sat around them.
Khelsilem pointed to each object then motioned its use as he said its name loudly and clearly in Sḵwx̱wú7mesh. He slashed as he said the word for knife; he mimicked turning a steering wheel as he said the word for car. The class joined him in reciting and gesturing the words again and again. Khelsilem avoided English entirely. The students smiled as they committed the words to memory with confidence.
The game was a part of a set of techniques called “Where Are Your Keys?” that Khelsilem discovered on Twitter. This was the kind of learning he had always wanted to experience — practical teaching techniques that would help the language stick.
Growing up, his grandmother would play tapes for him of Elders speaking and singing before he was allowed to watch cartoons or go out and play. “She really, really valued the language,” said Khelsilem. “She spoke it before she went to residential school for 10 years.” Her time at St. Paul’s damaged her fluency.
When riding public transit in multicultural Metro Vancouver, Khelsilem would hear other languages from Farsi to Vietnamese. This made him want to learn his own all the more. “I wanted to be able to be on the bus and speak my language with somebody.”
After learning from teachers like Vanessa Campbell and Peter Jacobs, who teaches at the University of Victoria’s Indigenous language revitalization program, Khelsilem was eager to pass the language on. He would establish a Sḵwx̱wú7mesh immersion program at SFU, launch two podcasts to teach the language, and help a Vancouver city councillor use it to welcome people in council chambers.
It’s common for politicians in multicultural jurisdictions to learn key phrases in other languages to better greet the people they represent. Andrea Reimer, who served between 2008 and 2018, had taken 10 weeks of Cantonese and some Mandarin to better connect with Vancouver’s large Chinese population. Given that Vancouver is on unceded territory, she figured that she would learn one of the land’s Indigenous languages. After 10 lessons with Khelsilem, Reimer learned enough to be able to open meetings. The new language also delivered new understanding.
“When I’m doing an acknowledgment, I would say that I’m a settler, but the literal translation of what I would say is that I appeared here. And that’s how the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh experience settlers. Most cultures chose a word like alien or foreigner. It’s interesting that the Squamish chose this word because it has no judgment.”
In the spring of 2018, Khelsilem appeared on a Burnaby stage to address hundreds of people protesting Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. Tall and charismatic, Khelsilem demonstrated a gift for rousing speeches. On his blue T-shirt were the words, “I will fight for this coastline forever.”
“To my friends in the NDP in Victoria, you promised us that you would fight Kinder Morgan,” said Khelsilem.
The NDP cabinet was in a difficult spot. Its members opposed the pipeline project, but the B.C. Supreme Court advised that it had a legal duty to defend the project’s approval granted by the previous government. The NDP did just that. Though Khelsilem, a progressive who helped get an NDP candidate elected, wasn’t afraid to call them out.
In response, the Squamish Nation filed a petition in the court, alleging that the province had failed in its duty to consult them. “When that court case comes down — and I’m praying that the Squamish Nation wins,” he declared, “meet us at the table and let’s delay this project!” There was loud applause. Khelsilem concluded his speech with a large cry of “Support Indigenous rights!
“It’s not only the right thing to do, but it’s going to be the future of this country. It’s going to make this country a better place.”
Despite his ease with a mic and a crowd, Khelsilem believes his greatest strength is a quieter skill with a deeper impact. He calls it “troubleshooting”: researching something, then giving it a try.
In high school, when he was upset about the lack of Indigenous history, he took to Wikipedia to fill it with articles on everything from Indigenous leaders to how B.C. treaties worked. When he became a politician, he researched the best governance model for the Squamish’s housing non-profit and helped his friend Christine Boyle, a Vancouver councillor, craft a proposal for a complex development tax.
It might be less sexy than booming speeches, but this ability to help change the future is what inspired him to run for the very council that frustrated him as a teen.
“I like imagining the scaffolding,” says Khelsilem. “I have a knack for policy. When you make law, you are making something that outlives you.”
There is a lot of scaffolding to be done when it comes to the Sen̓áḵw project. Making the controversial development a success will draw as well on Khelsilem’s powers of persuasion. The lead developer is Westbank, which has made a name in Vancouver building luxury towers designed by international architects but also social housing to appease city hall. Because Sen̓áḵw is on reserve land, despite being situated in Vancouver, the Squamish don’t have to follow the building restrictions of the city’s planning department.
Larry Benge of the Coalition of Vancouver Neighbourhoods, the umbrella group of various residents’ associations, has fought a number of big changes in land use. He lives in Kitsilano, not far from where Sen̓áḵw will be. While he understands that the project is on Squamish land and not city land, he worries about how it might fit into neighbourhood. The project doesn’t have to follow Vancouver’s stringent height or parking regulations.
“I think it’s a bit simplistic to think that the development isn’t going to have effects on the city and surrounding neighbourhoods,” he said, citing traffic in and out of downtown, school enrolment and property values.
And yet, Benge is a big fan of Khelsilem. “His people are very lucky to have him.” And he believes the Squamish are justified in their ambitions.
“I think they’re taking their rightful position,” he says. “I’m a white colonist, right, but I’m looking at it from an Indigenous point of view, and I can only say they’re trying to improve their position in the city, with their nation, and taking advantage of the opportunities that are presented to them. It’ll be interesting to see the influence of [the land’s] original residents.”
“Real estate development,” says Khelsilem, “is an opportunity for us to generate real wealth for our community, and to invest in core needs in our community that have been underserved for so long: education, housing, health care, culture. Our dreams just became possible.”
Ginger Gosnell-Meyers was Vancouver’s first Indigenous relations manager, finishing in 2018. Like Khelsilem, she views the major developments planned for Vancouver by the Squamish and Musqueam Nations through the prism of colonialism.
“First Nations have the opportunity to create wealth on their land for the first time,” she says. “This isn’t just about generated economic value, though that’s tremendous, but so that everyone understands that this is an Indigenous place. These people have been here since time immemorial.”
A paradox of Canada’s claimed goal of righting oppression through reconciliation is the extra work it heaps onto Indigenous people. Nowadays, Indigenous leaders are often asked by settler organizations to make an appearance, presentation or participate in some sort of collaboration. Orene Askew was elected to the Squamish council along with Khelsilem and is a nation spokesperson.
“People want us all the time, which is great, because lots of people are waking up, but it gets overwhelming,” says Askew. “We can’t just go: here’s a presentation, here’s a contract, sign it or not. We have to work on our relationship first.”
Many institutions pursuing reconciliation ask Indigenous people to help them achieve their goal, but sometimes they haven’t done the homework or aren’t ready to do things differently.
“I have not seen meaningful change in any of the work I’ve done until I’ve witnessed my colleagues do the work to understand these histories, such as residential schools,” says Gosnell-Myers, “and understand some of the legal frameworks that we live with today that purposely discriminate against Indigenous people still.”
She tires of explaining the same facts, the lived experiences, over and over again. “I don’t think professionals quite appreciate the Groundhog Day that we go through.”
“There has become an imperative for settlers to learn fast,” says Chris Corrigan. “The demands on people like Khelsilem are immense.”
Corrigan has been a friend and mentor to Khelsilem since he was in high school. A settler, Corrigan worked in policy and programming with Indigenous friendship centres in the 1990s and runs a leadership consulting business, often with Indigenous communities. He is all too aware that lots of Canadians remain stumped on questions like the meaning of unceded or why there is there a number seven in the name Sḵwx̱wú7mesh.
Settlers also have a habit of projecting their own wishes on what First Nations do, such as expecting Sen̓áḵw to be a model development that meets their checklist of principles. If their idealized views aren’t met, “the backlash is stronger,” said Corrigan. He points to the Squamish approving the Woodfibre LNG facility on their territory, which angered some environmentalists who expected them to reject it.
“Indigenous leaders are facing their communities first and foremost,” emphasizes Corrigan. “They make decisions and do things based on the best interests of their nations. Then they face the world.”
The world, for Khelsilem, quickly expanded after he became a Squamish councillor and began moving down historically white corridors of power. He remembers being invited to the inner sanctum of the elite Vancouver Club for the first time.
“Someone was pointing out to me all the former cabinet ministers and someone who was an industrialist,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone referred to as an industrialist except for Tony Stark.”
Khelsilem is a big Marvel fan. When he went to see Captain Marvel with Wade Grant of the Musqueam and Gabriel George of the Tsleil-Waututh, he tweeted, “Three nations coming together.”
He knows a lot is expected of Indigenous leaders — just look at the fanfare that follows them, he says. This summer, media highlighted the first Indigenous president of the Canadian Bar Association, the first Indigenous woman in the senate, and the first Indigenous superintendent of Saskatoon’s public schools.
Khelsilem is adamant that he doesn’t lead for the sake of leading, but to bring people together, and he hopes Indigenous trailblazers will inspire younger Indigenous people to take action. For settlers, he hopes they’ll see what a Canadian future with Indigenous involvement could look like when they are affirmed their rightful place at the table.
“We’re staunch advocates for our environment, our climate and we understand what the impacts are of disparity in wealth,” he says. “Canada benefits from Indigenous leadership culturally, socially, economically, politically.”
What about all that anger that fired him up in his teens? Khelsilem says he converted it into a different energy.
“Angry indignation is really important, powerful and legitimate. But I also realized, how do I move things forward? Sometimes that requires diplomacy. Sometimes that requires advocacy. Sometimes that requires analysis.”
I think of the question posed by his old blog: liberated yet? To the history buff, I pose a question: In the future, what might a young Indigenous student find when they open up a high-school textbook?
Khelsilem says it’s absurd today to think that Indigenous people were once denied the right to vote. He hopes it’ll be just as absurd in the future to imagine a time when Indigenous people were marginalized.
“We’re going through this transition period, where control and influence are being returned to the people who had control and influence here previously. And we’re going to share.
“I think that’s what’s happening right now. We still have a long way to go on that, but I think we’re headed in the right direction.”
He pauses in the shadow of the Burrard Bridge and looks beyond the thorny vines that for the moment happen to overwhelm this place. Once this was a settlement named Sen̓áḵw and it will be again. Khelsilem may seem a brand-new kind of politician, a product of the times, but Old Man Rivers doesn’t need a textbook to tell him he is part of a long continuum, past and future joined.
“There were leaders before I came into this world who made decisions to create a benefit for me,” he says. “What we’re doing right now is going to make things better for those who aren’t even born yet.”