Chief Russell Myers Ross has a lot on his plate these days. After two consecutive terms as Chief of Yuneŝit'in, one of the six communities that form the Tŝilhqot'in Nation, Myers Ross will step down on September 8th, passing the torch to a new leader. For the last several weeks, he’s been working around the clock, determined to leave the three dozen or so projects he initiated or inherited in the past eight years in a good way so that they can continue to move forward under the direction of the Chief and Council.
Current projects range from the design of a wildfire-resistant housing prototype to Indigenous fire management; language revitalization programs to construction of a guest house and creation of the Dasiqox Tribal Park. In addition, together with the community, Chief Myers Ross is celebrating some recently completed projects, including a massive solar farm and greenhouses for food production. All are aimed at building capacity and securing a more abundant future for both the community and the larger Nation, and close to half are moving forward with the support of a research collaboration. Whether supported by research or not, the amount of activity and forward momentum underway in Yuneŝit'in territory reflects the sheer determination, dedication and hard work of a man who never really expected to be Chief.
Myers Ross completed both undergraduate and graduate degrees at University of Victoria, and although his master’s degree is in Indigenous Governance, it hadn’t really occurred to him to enter politics until after he graduated and returned home to reconnect to the land and his heritage. There, urged on by his family, he ran for election and won his first seat by a narrow margin. “At the time, I was really an outsider,” says Myers Ross. “I’m an anomaly in terms of getting into leadership because I spent so much time in school and so far away from home.”
“I had just turned 30 almost at the same time as having my first newborn, and then, three days later, I was Chief. I don’t think anything prepared me.”
In some ways, leadership has been a coming of age for Chief Myers Ross, whose first years were shaped by a personal idealism. “I remember trying to reject the colonial apparatus, and at the same time moving into it and trying to figure out how to decolonize from within. In some ways it’s an impossible job, but I was up for it and trying to think through the challenge. I was trying to think through the governance pieces and at the same time maintain expectations and re-build a community that had been broken so much.”
Chief Myers Ross had goals of building a constitution for his people and to enabling them to get back to using the land in a more traditional way, but his focus soon shifted as he got to know what community members wanted and needed. “I had this idea of being on the land and building homes in areas where we lived a generation or two before, hunting and fishing and those sorts of things. But I learned that there [were] social and psychological issues as well as members’ basic needs that hadn't been taken care of. So, I ended up shifting from [thinking] it would be easy for people to go back on the land to realizing that a lot of [members] aren’t capable of that, or they don't want to. That was the hard lesson for me – realizing that not everyone sees my vision. I kind of had to like kind of kill my own dream in a way and start shifting towards people where people were at.”
This shift, and his approach of humility, served Chief Myers Ross well. For his second term, he garnered more than 90% of the vote, with people starting to trust that he was addressing their concerns and working to create a localised economy for the Yuneŝit'in people. In turn, Chief Myers Ross began to understand just how connected the community’s issues are. “We talked about land use planning and forestry, and then we started to layer everything and see how it connects to economics and housing, food security and everything else.” It was this interconnectedness that promoted Chief Myers Ross to approach university researchers to support his community work.
“Academia is built on layers of knowledge, so there’s always somebody that knows the leading edge. That knowledge provides a bigger context and gives us more options to work with.”
Having spent a lot of time in universities and thus having a perspective that many from his community did not experience, gave Chief Myers Ross the confidence to approach university faculty for student research support. These early engagements provided learning opportunities, and Chief Myers Ross quickly discovered that research collaborations were most productive when directed by the community, but if the student’s project didn’t align with community needs, or if the researcher only had a few months to work with the community, it was more labour in than results out. “It was a mixed experience, working with different students from different schools. It was extremely exhausting sometimes, supervising a student and then having to read and edit and go through the finished product.”
Chief Myers Ross quickly realised that the optimal arrangement is to work with faculty, who have the time and longevity required to do the work in a way that truly serves community needs. “The feeling-out process for any collaboration sometimes takes a year and a half. It’s taken a few months, or a year, or even two to develop the project design and scope.”
Another key learning came when an early attempt at collaboration for housing designs left the community without a tangible outcome, causing Chief Myers Ross to realize the importance of having an official agreement in place. “I had thought that the relationship would be strong enough and that I could make a phone call and things would get worked out.” Unfortunately, without that formal agreement, things didn’t get resolved in a way that he’d hoped. Chief Myers Ross later connected with IRSI’s soon-to-be Associate Director Lerato Chondoma at UBC to see whether work could be done in designing homes that would evolve from the previous work.
Having a point person to ensure that level of continuity in research collaborations made a big difference for Chief Myers Ross and the various community research engagements. “Lerato was that glue. She was able to continue discussions in a liaising way. I think the most effective thing for UBC to do is to have those trust mechanisms put in place – that governance or relationship piece needs to be in place.”
“Many communities don’t have research protocols to guide them. They don't think how capacity to take on researchers and follow the whole process of design and scope and ethics, for example. When you consider all the projects that we've started, I think it's [been] pretty effective in terms of leaning on [Lerato] to provide those basic relationships and the basic contracts.” Those connections, as described by Chief Myers Ross, are critical to a project’s success.
“As a Nation or as a community, I'm grateful to UBC in terms of them having the infrastructure to take a community's priorities and try to find the appropriate person.”
As a result of the support and continuity that IRSI has provided, Chief Myers Ross has been able to successfully get a number of research collaborations off the ground for both Yuneŝit'in and the larger Tŝilhqot'in Nation. For example, Yuneŝit'in is currently collaborating with John Bass, Associate Professor in UBC’s School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture (SALA), on a renewed attempt to co-design housing that responds to the threat of climate change induced wildfires. After a lengthy pre-engagement, the Wild Fire Housing project is officially underway, this time supported by a Project Charter that IRSI drafted for the project partners.
The Wild Fire Housing Project builds on a previous research collaboration between the Tŝilhqot'in Nation and UBC scholars Dr. Jocelyn Stacey, Peter A. Allard School of Law, and Emma Feltes, Anthropology, whose research contributed to “The Fires Awakened Us”, the Tŝilhqot'in Nation’s action plan to address fire emergencies in their territory. According to Chief Myers Ross, “[the Nation] wouldn’t have been able to pull together quite the analysis that the researchers did. It was a fairly invaluable contribution.”
Also with the support of IRSI, Chief Myers Ross has been able to foster a successful collaboration with UBC’s Kevin Hanna, Director of the Centre for Environmental Assessment and Research (CEAR) based at UBC’s Okanagan campus. Dr. Hanna is working with both Yuneŝit'in and the Tŝilhqot'in Nation on multiple research projects related to land use planning and environmental management. To guide the partners’ work, IRSI facilitated Memorandum of Understanding and Indigenous Knowledge Protocol agreements between the Nation and UBC. The agreements ensure, among other things, that research undertaken incorporates Tŝilhqot’in knowledge, community needs and sustainable environmental practices and opportunities within Tŝilhqot’in Nen (lands). Read a media release about the MOU.
Once again, this work is possible due to the commitment offered by the Nation’s UBC partner. “I'm grateful that Kevin has stuck around and being able to work with our staff on trying to define what's useful and what his students are capable of. Kevin is fully involved; he developed the SSHRC [Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council] grant, he's the one coordinating the students, and he’s finding out where [the work] fits between both our Nation and the capacity of his own team. If you have that longevity with somebody, it pays off.”
Having the MOU in place ties up one of his many loose ends, and it lets Chief Myers Ross breathe a sigh of relief as he prepares for his impending transition. As to what’s next for Chief Myers Ross, he plans to focus on his family – his daughters are now four, soon to be five, and eight—and to take care of his health. He also intends to revive his dreams of getting back to the land and expects to dive into new and old creative projects: “I have yet to finish that graphic novel.” And while he doesn’t rule out a return to leadership one day, for now he looks forward to a quieter life, albeit with a new lens to view the world through.
One thing is certain: in his eight years as an unexpected leader, Chief Myers Ross has had a huge, and lasting, impact on his community. “A lot of projects are starting to come together. All the pieces that I've put in place are basically like a map or guide. With all the comprehensive community planning, there’s a really good foundation for people to work with.”
In the following embedded video, Chief Myers Ross discusses his experience working with UBC and shares his perspective on how IRSI can support community-driven research.
And these stories, published elsewhere, give an additional look at the creative practice and work of Chief Russell Myers Ross:
Voices From Here. Russell Myers Ross talks about his thesis work and his experience as Chief in this Historica Canada video production (12 minutes).
The Colony is Unwilling to Share Fire. Published in Briarpatch magazine, this non-fiction story was winner of the Briarpatch creative writing contest in 2012.