Burt XEMXIMELEK Charles honoured for life's work
Scia'new Nation Hereditary Chief Burt XEMXIMELEḴ Charles has dedicated his life to the struggle for civil rights for Indigenous Peoples, not only on his traditional lands in Beecher Bay, but on the national stage.
He will receive an Honorary Doctor of Laws for his life’s work at Royal Roads University’s Spring Convocation June 18.
Born in 1937, Burt XEMXIMELEḴ Charles was raised in the traditions of his family and ancestors at Beecher Bay, 40 minutes southeast of Victoria. He grew up speaking his family’traditional language, and learning from his grandparents and great-grandparents.
XEMXIMELEḴ’s traditional name comes from the Tsawwassen People on his mother’s side of the family, who also have roots in Saanich. XEMXIMELEḴ follows the Scia'new lineage of his grandfather, Hereditary Chief Tom SUTIECIUM Charles and his father, Hereditary Chief Jasper Tom SUTIECIUM Charles. XEMXIMELEḴ’s extended family members are located in traditional territories from Seattle (named for his ancestor, SI'AHL) to Elwha on the Olympic Peninsula, and from Beecher Bay to Nanoose Bay.
Bridging disparate worlds
Responsibility came early to XEMXIMELEḴ.
“We lived off the land and the water. There was no hydro out there back then, nor any water, so we had to pack wood, fish, hunt. Because I was the only boy in the family, they started training me to be a hunter at the age of seven and to be a fisherman at the same time. My dad built me a little dugout canoe that was about seven feet long,” he says.
“They bought me a single-shot .22 rifle when I was about 10 or 11 years old, and they sent me up to the woods by myself. That was the first time, up in the woods by myself. I managed to get a deer.”
Like other Indigenous children at the time, Charles was barred from attending segregated public school in communities closer to home in Sooke or Metchosin.
“In those days the only teachers we had were our own people, our Elders. We didn’t get confused about different things in life like we do nowadays, because we live in two cultures,” he says.
When Charles was 11, his family, and countless others, faced an impossible choice: enroll their children in “Indian Day School” or relinquish them to residential school.
Traveling from his traditional land to the government-mandated Indian Day School in Victoria, Charles set out on a lifetime of bridging disparate worlds.
“My dad worked on Lampson Street at a coal company. I used to ride with him every morning to that little day school on Songhees Reserve. It was all gravel to the Colwood corners from East Sooke, so I used to leave at 5:30 in the morning and get home around six or seven in the evening. It was a long day for me when I was a kid.”
“One day, the Department of Indian Affairs cars showed up. They loaded all the boys in and took us into a school on Pandora Street called St. Louis College. There was lot of discrimination and we went through heck,” he says.
“We were told not to use our language, because it was the devil’s language. We were told not to go the longhouse, it was the devil’s place of worship. That’s what we were told. And it really confused us because that’s where we got our teachings from: our Elders and our longhouse. Our language was used all the time at home. It really confused the heck out of me. I didn’t know who the heck I was.”
His father tried to address the abuse inflicted by the St. Louis College brothers, he says. “But they threatened him – if he did something about it, we’d be moved into a non-native home, a foster home.”
Charles left school at 15.
Commitment to the community
After leaving school, Charles worked in Victoria coal yards, and in Sooke and Jordan River logging operations, again traveling many hours by foot from Beecher Bay.
He was elected a member of Scia'new Council in 1958 and Chief in 1967, holding the latter position for more than two decades. He was recognized as Hereditary Chief of the Scia’new Nation in 1972.
Charles demanded and won basic services that by that time almost every immigrant and immigrant-descendant community of reasonable size took for granted, like electricity and running water. He took a stand for the right to hold a mortgage, negotiate with banks and obtain CMHC housing insurance – rights also taken for granted by settlers. He fought for fishing rights defined in the Douglas Treaty, for significant road improvements and built the Cheanuh Marina and Campground.
Charles partnered with Cowichan Chief Dennis Alphonse and other young chiefs to organize in response to the Trudeau “White Paper” of 1969. This resulted in the first British Columbia Chiefs Conference in Kamloops in 1969 and the creation of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs.
The union scuttled the Trudeau government’s White Paper plan to transfer jurisdiction of Indigenous issues to the provinces, and in so doing, repeal existing treaties, restrict land claims, and turn reserves into municipalities. The chiefs’ “Brown Paper” of 1971 was a pivotal piece in the political positioning of Indigenous voice and rights in Canada. XEMXIMELEK is the only remaining living member of this original group.
Always advocates for the abolition of educational segregation of Indigenous children and forced attendance at day and residential schools, the Charles family stepped forward again when their eldest daughter, the late Nadine TEȺȽIE Charles, was the first from their nation to attend public school.
Sharing traditional knowledge
Charles’ work has been a true partnership with his wife, the teacher and SENĆOŦEN language-holder Elder Lavina SPOȽTENOT Charles — Lee to those who know her. The two met at a strawberry-picking camp in 1954, and went on to have six children, 19 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren.
The traditional teachings of both Burt and Lee’s grandparents and great-grandparents provide healing from the abuses of the past, they say.
“I can talk about it now,” Burt Charles says of his experience at Indian Day Schools. “I went back to the old teachings of our people. Don’t take the bad things that are given to you. Don’t take it and carry it with you because that’s when it hurts. You put it right back on them, thank them for it. Walk away and leave it there.”
Memories of Elders’ teachings bring inspiration too, Lee Charles says. “My great-grandparents and Burt’s great-grandparents always taught us love, respect, honesty and strength. Prayers to the Creator. Those are the things that were taught by the Elders. They had good hearts and a lot of wisdom.”
They have shared those traditional teachings in their support for countless youth programs, including drug and alcohol counselling and youth camps, and facilitating intercultural understanding, language lessons and traditional teachings for K-12 students. Both Burt and Lee Charles are members of Royal Roads University’s Heron People, the university’s circle of Old Ones and traditional knowledge keepers.