When he was growing up, everyone expected Chris Lewis to become an auto mechanic. He could often be found tinkering with old cars, and many assumed that would drive his career choice.
So some of his former teachers were surprised when he changed course, got a university degree, started a political job then, at age 29, became one of the leaders of Squamish Nation.
But his Grade 6 teacher was not surprised, says Lewis, now 36. He shared his story over coffee at Starbucks, where several Squamish Nation members stopped by our table to greet him warmly. He smiled and took a minute to say hello.
Lewis, an elected Squamish Nation councillor, showed his first signs of leadership during a Grade 6 class trip to the provincial legislature. His teacher clearly remembered young Chris’s tough question to the MLA: “What are you going to do for First Nations people?”
It takes gumption for a young kid to interrogate an MLA. He believes this probably came from being raised by his grandparents, Willie and Delores Lewis.
“My grandfather wasn’t a politician, but he was active in the community, ensuring that our rights were upheld,” he recalls.
They spoke the Squamish language, Skwxu7mesh, but only privately when only other Nation people were nearby. Many elders no longer spoke the language. “It was forced out of both of them in the residential school system,” he says. “My grandfather only spoke it in safe, remote areas with his brothers, when we were fishing and hunting out on the land, where he knew he would not be persecuted.”
Lewis learned the language as well – it’s even listed as part of his LinkedIn profile – but he says he was most proficient in speaking it right after high school after he had studied Skwxu7mesh for several years.
He initially started studying at BCIT to be an auto technician. “I got there and quickly learned that I loved working on cars in my backyard and not as a career.”
His counsellor told him to enroll in university and see what piqued his interest. He started at Capilano College, then completed his Bachelor of Arts in geography at Simon Fraser University. He’s currently on the SFU board of governors. He’s also an avid hunter and fisherman and enjoys playing and coaching lacrosse.
After graduation, Lewis got a summer administrative job with the B.C. Assembly of First Nations then, after impressing the regional chief, he was offered a job as policy advisor. He had a chance to work for Jody Wilson-Raybould, who is now the attorney general of Canada and minister of justice.
What drew Lewis into politics? He takes a sip of his coffee and reflects. “It’s kind of interesting in the Squamish Nation community. The community almost picks you. When I graduated from university in 2005, there were already people asking me to run for chiefs and council,” he says. “At that time… I knew I was just out of university and had nothing to bring to the table.”
His work as policy advisor, however, gave him the confidence to move forward. As a Squamish Nation councillor, he’s concerned about several key issues.
“Education has been my number one,” says Lewis, noting he’d like to see “better outcomes for all of our students regardless of what ages they are.”
He would also like to see First Nations people “hold onto our language and culture, but learn the modern ways of being successful in today’s society.” Other critical issues include governance and safe housing.
Unfortunately, he says, Squamish Nation people still deal with racism. “We still deal with that systemic kind of attitude toward First Nations people,” he says.
Educating everyone on Nations history is key, Lewis believes. Often, people learn only about First Nations history from the time the European pioneers arrived, then the lesson stops. “There is no education in our system explaining why First Nations are fighting for their rights.”
Lewis’s future looks promising and he smiles broadly as he speaks. He’s a newlywed, married just last summer.
Will his political career lead to national leadership in Ottawa? He smiles at my question as he holds the door open for us to leave the coffee shop.
“The sky’s the limit,” he says.