Wenecwtsin, known by many as Wayne Christian, is looking ahead to a new chapter in his life after serving seven straight terms as Kúkpi7 (Chief) of the Splatsin First Nation.
In the Jan. 10, 2022 Splatsin election, Wenecwtsin was unseated by former councillor Doug Thomas by just five votes.
“It’s been an interesting transition for me to honestly stop thinking in that way as a Kúkpi7, as a Chief … always thinking about what you need to do to protect the community, what you need to do to protect the elders, young people … I no longer have that responsibility. It’s up to the new chief and new council to take that on,” he told Global News in an exclusive post-election interview reflecting on his long run in office.
The father of seven has spent most of his adult life advocating for Indigenous rights. He’s a ‘Sixties Scoop’ survivor and says his mother attended an assimilation institution known as the Kamloops Indian Residential School, which was thrust into the international spotlight after the confirmation of unmarked burials nearby.
“It really impacted me because it hits me to the very core as an Indigenous man. As the son of a survivor, my mom went to that place … I know for a lot of survivors it was the first time they actually talked about their story. It was the first time they could get it out. And I think that’s a really important part of the healing process to actually name it, and actually do something about it,” he said.
Wenecwtsin says his mother passed away before he could hear her entire story but he saw the trauma and has dedicated himself to helping others and future generations.
“I spent a large part of my career and my life working in addictions and healing, and developing programs like trauma programs when the residential school issue was just percolating and they were just doing the investigation,” he told Global News. “That work is really important and it’s that legacy of standing our people up, that legacy of empowering our people to heal themselves, look after themselves.”
Significant distrust in government persists among First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities, he said, and he continues to advocate for legislative change. He also believes in the effectiveness of traditional healing tools and processes.
Wenecwtsin was first elected to council in 1977, at age 23. Two years later, he became a Kúkpi7 for the first time. In the ten years that followed, Wenecwtsin helped establish the first on-reserve gas station and the Shihiya Band-operated School. Both remain in operation today.
An on-reserve housing development, recovery home and addictions treatment facility were also launched during that time.
Those early accomplishments were followed by a major change to the way child welfare would be handled, with the passing of a bylaw for the care of Indigenous children, leading to a movement known as the “Indian Child Caravan” in October of 1980, resulting in an agreement with the province giving the community of Spallumcheen control over their own child welfare program.
“Since we took over child welfare, we’ve had over 500 children born into the community. And if we didn’t do what we did in 1980, I would swear that most of those children would have been lost to the system because of what is going on at that time. So you gotta think about that, a decision you make today to heal yourself and heal your family, is you’ll heal a generation who is not yet here.”
This was the start of what Wenecwtsin now looks back on as the work he’s most proud of.
“That to me is the most important thing to do, is to look after the future, look after the children and making sure we implemented our own laws and our own processes based on Secwépemc values and culture to protect them from future harm, and that’s what I’m most proud of, all of the work I’ve done for children.”
Between 1987 and 2001, he went on to lead the residential addictions program at the Round Lake Treatment Facility. He also established a new trauma treatment and abuse programs for survivors operated in First Nations communities across Canada. He also served as the president of the National Native Addictions Partnership, president of BC Treatment Directors Association and executive director of the Community Health Associates of BC.
“I tried to serve the people in such a way to empower them, enable them, get them up to be able to do what they needed to do so in looking back it’s really about creating a path for those yet unborn.”
This philosophy would carry through his time leading the Splatsin First Nation, where he was first elected Kúkpi7 in 2005. He also served as the Tribal Chair of the Shuswap National Tribal Council.
“When I look backwards I see the future, and what I mean by that is I see the legacy of those children that are now adults and grandparents and parents now, back then they were children, so if you think about that it really is a whole connection to those yet unborn and we all have a responsibility to do what we can do for ourselves, help ourselves so we can help others and that’s what I’ve done most of my life.”
“Now there’s a little more time to focus on myself. I’ve given a lot of my time and my life to the people and the community and now I sort of have to look back at what can I do in the rest of my time on this earth to help other people and myself at this point.”