The hereditary chief of the Esquimalt Nation, Seenupin, Chief Andrew Thomas has passed away.
For 47 years, Chief Andy – as he was often referred to – led the people of the Esquimalt Nation, before he died suddenly at his home early Saturday in his seventy-first year.
Born and raised on Esquimalt Nation lands, Thomas helped create the Assembly of First Nations and served on the executive of the First Nations of South Island Tribal Council.
“Despite what the world thinks, we have not lost our culture,” he wrote on the Esquimalt Nation website. “However, because our culture was tied to and sustained by our lands, we must find new ways to give it voice.”
A tireless advocate for Indigenous rights, Thomas helped establish Salish Sea Industrial Services Ltd. to provide training and employment opportunities for his nation.
In 2007, he was honoured with the Chancellor’s Community Recognition Award from Royal Roads for his work to make Esquimalt Nation prosper.
Most recently, Thomas was proud to see the new branch of the Greater Victoria Public Library given a Lekwungen name, honouring its location in what is now known as James Bay.
In a statement, Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps called him an “inspiration” whose “legacy will live on as we continue to walk together on this new path of truth and reconciliation.”
“Chief Thomas was a champion for his people,” the mayor said. “Grappling with the ongoing legacy of colonialism, he became dedicated to ensuring a prosperous future for the youth of his community.”
Esquimalt Mayor Barb Desjardins called Thomas “an incredible leader” who was integral to her journey in understanding reconciliation and the issues of colonialism. “Andy always held his cards close; he never disclosed all he was thinking, but he was a very generous heart and a genuine person,” she said.
The timing of his death is particularly hard for the Esquimalt mayor, who had recently been in discussion with Thomas in an effort to ensure ongoing communication between the nation and the township.
“It’s really sad that we’re not going to be able to [partake in] further discussion with Chief Andy Thomas, but we’ll certainly endeavour to work with Esquimalt Nation when they are ready and when they are able,” she said.
Speaking to Victoria council, Thomas once said: “Reconciliation is your work, your responsibility. We will work with you, guide you and share the labour but it is your burden to carry, and you must do what is needed to put that burden down, piece by piece.”
School District 61 board chair, Edith Loring-Kuhanga, member of the Gitxsan Nation, said in a statement, she asked for Thomas’ blessing when she decided to run for school board trustee.
“He empowered me to stand up for the interests of First Nation children,” she said. “He believed in empowering our youth to maintain their cultural heritage and identity in order to survive in today’s complex world.”
Thomas is survived by his wife Mary Anne, their children, Maureen, Ed, Mike, Matthew, Louie, Andrew and Mary Anne Jr., as well as grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. A statement from Esquimalt Nation asked that the family’s privacy be respected but a public funeral service in the Esqimalt Big House (1189 Kosapsum Crescent) is planned for April 12 at 9 a.m.