by Karen Elgersma | photo by Janis Jean Photography –
Andy Paul grew up W̱SÁNEĆ in the community of W̱JOȽEȽP (Tsartlip) where he continues to live and work today. As a leader, entrepreneur, and visionary, Andy’s story is one of hope and inspiration.
What were the most valuable things you learned from your parents and grandparents, and how does this still impact you today?
We were fortunate that our mother and grandmother were very present in our lives. Our mother was a truly optimistic person and always saw the good in people. Our grandmother on our mom’s side was very hard working, and this work ethic was passed along throughout the family. We never met our other grandmother, she died of tuberculosis when our dad was only seven. The last time he saw her was before he was sent to residential school: when he returned she was gone. This profoundly impacted our father, his siblings and our future family. Our grandfathers were very hardworking too. Like many Elders, both were driven to document and leave as much language and cultural knowledge as they could. Our parents and grandparents are no longer living, but the example they set for us continues to provide for our family.
When you opened Saanich Market on the corner of Stelly’s X Road and West Saanich Road, you faced many obstacles. How did you overcome these to become a successful business owner?
The system is not set up for a First Nations person to succeed in business on reserve, no matter how intelligent and hardworking. This was no different in 1990. In particular, under the Indian Act there are legislated restrictions, and challenges to independently accessing financing. There’s a misconception that Indigenous people get everything for free, but the truth is, First Nations land is given zero value anywhere, including the open market. When we were starting out, not only was there no support, there was resistance. We had to study and be inventive in finding ways around the barricades. We knew we possessed a prime location for a farm market on the corner, and because he had no choice, my father created a very risky leverage to finance our buildings.
It’s always bothered me to see and experience how someone’s dignity is challenged through these processes, simply because you are a First Nations person living on a reserve. Not long after our father’s passing, my brother Remi and I took his efforts a step further and navigated the complexities of creating a long-term lease through what was then Indian and Northern Affairs Canada. We leased the land back to our registered company, with our family as the shareholders. This allowed us to leverage our first business loan. We were young men in our early 20s, and overcoming these hurdles was a big step forward. We were excited and worked hard so we didn’t lose the farm. However, after a few years, in the face of a variety of insurmountable hardships, including losing our mom, we decided to let the market go. Timing is everything.
Your time at the House of First Voices Aboriginal Art Gallery in Bastion Square led to many other opportunities – including meeting your wife, contributing to First Voices, and supporting your brother, Chris Paul, in his career as a Coast Salish artist. How did this period inspire you in the next chapter of your career and life?
The House of First Voices Aboriginal Art Gallery, although short-lived, was a great Indigenous-run art gallery. For me, a lot came out of it. After initially establishing a gallery retail shop and all the processes and relationships with artists, the Executive Director of First Peoples Heritage, Language and Culture Council (FPHLCC) asked if I would be interested in working to raise awareness and funds for an interesting new project. FirstVoices.com is a suite of online tools for communities to document, archive and support learning of our Indigenous languages. FPHLCC needed to generate the resources to build First Voices and provide it to communities.
I understood advocacy from my father and upbringing, but didn’t know the current government and key people. My friend and colleague, Cathi Charles Wherry, did and she gave me the confidence to really go after it. We were partners in strategizing and lobbying Ottawa. Later, she would become my wife.
Tell us about the First Voices project?
FirstVoices was originally created in the minds of John Elliott and Peter Brand, two dedicated teachers from the ȽÁU, WELṈEW̱ Tribal School. John’s father (my grandfather) created the orthography for the SENĆOŦEN language. As a teacher Peter saw the potential in using computers in the classroom. In 2001 they brought the idea to FPHLCC. This was a groundbreaking idea and it was far from an overnight success. My early involvement with FirstVoices was exciting, and I invested everything I had into generating the needed financial resources. Peter and I spent a lot of time travelling and promoting what was essentially an “idea for a project” at universities and colleges in the United States. I also believed we should lobby the Canadian government to invest as a reparation. That’s where the initial investment came from. First Voices is now in its 18th year, and used by many language groups across British Columbia, Canada and the United States. Its longevity is the result of the leadership of the current CEO of FPHLCC, Tracey Herbert.
That project was an avenue for me to contribute to my family legacy in my own way. My great-grandfather Thomas Paul spoke little English, my grandfather Chris Paul spoke three languages, including English as a third language. Two generations later, I understand some of, but don’t speak SENĆOŦEN. I attended the Indian Day School and my generation was not encouraged to speak our language. Later, when it was minimally taught, we were already in our teens, and carrying related embarrassment and shame. Over the years, many language champions in our community have contributed to changing that. This includes our youngest brother Kevin, who is fluent and working with others to build the vitality of Aboriginal Serif . The community now has a 1,500-page dictionary, young people are taught from a preschool Language Nest forward. When everyone works together, things can change.
Our society is grappling with the pain and loss of the discovery of the remains of the 215 children at the Kamloops residential school. How can we respond to this tragedy?
The discovery of these little ancestors is shocking but not a surprise to Indigenous People who know survivors and families who carry stories of children who disappeared and never made it home. Now these crimes are undeniable. If people really want to do something, they should pressure the government to fulfil commitments made to fully investigate the sites of residential schools across the country. They can also learn about the true history, cultures and brilliance of the Indigenous Peoples of this land.