Erralyn Thomas - Law school, treaty work, politics

Tue. Apr. 29/14
2014-04-29T00:00:00

Erralyn Thomas hurries into the Snuneymuxw First Nation's administration building, almost rushing past before backtracking.

"Hi, I just have to take care of some things," she says apologetically, extending her hand. "I'll be back in a couple minutes?" She disappears into the back and, when she returns, Thomas picks an empty office (she doesn't have her own yet) and moves a large stack of files from a chair before setting down two bags of bread she just purchased from people selling it outside.

"Sorry, it's crazy out there," she says, sitting down in the unlit office in front of a large, open window.

Dressed in a hot pink sweater and jeans with her hair tied back, the 28-year-old sits casually with one Ugg boot-clad foot tucked underneath her. Thomas, the newest and youngest Snuneymuxw councillor as of February, has made some time between back-to-back meetings.

Because she is also an Assembly of First Nations youth representative, a GEN7 Messenger for Motivate Canada and an articling law student with the Hul'quimi'num Treaty Group, her schedule is hectic and has her travelling all over Canada.

She jokes that she needs a secretary and is sometimes afraid to look at her phone, but juggling many positions is nothing new to Thomas, who played seven sports in high school and competed in the Women's Lacrosse World Cup in 2009.

Once the chaos around her calms, it becomes clear why Thomas was elected to leadership.

Her calendar is packed full, yet she is immediately focused on the task at hand and seems to compartmentalize everything masterfully.

And despite words like "embryonic" slipping into her casual speech, sitting down with the newest Snuneymuxw councillor is like catching up with an old friend.

Thomas was born and raised on Snuneymuxw territory, moving in with her grandparents in Cowichan just before high school.

She was a daredevil as a child who would pull stunts like jumping off bridges, eventually channeling her energy and love of adventure into sports.

Her talent for a particular sport, lacrosse, soon stood out, and she received a Division 1 Lacrosse scholarship to attend Niagara University in New York.

Training with the assistant coach of Team Canada, Thomas competed in the 2009 Women's Lacrosse World Cup in the Czech Republic with the Haundenosaunee Women's National Team before returning to her home on the Snuneymuxw First Nation. Although she says she is likely finished with sports now (and sick of the gym) she draws comparisons between politics and sports "all the time."

"Sometimes life will slow down and I'll look around and think, 'huh, this is what my life really is. It's so fast,'" she said.

"Before I started on council, the older generation, the wiser people before me, were saying, 'go slow, you've got to go slow.' I spent two months telling myself that because I know from all the other boards I've sat on that I come in flying."

When Thomas was a teenager, she wanted to be a lawyer and play lacrosse. She set her eye on a councillor position in her 20s after she had achieved both of her goals at a young age.

"I was trying to figure out where I could fit in and be most effective," she said. "It was like, what next? And this is it. I can see myself here for a long time, as long as I can do good on behalf of our people and they continue to feel that I can do the job."

When Thomas was campaigning for her councillor position, she would often spend days working on her law degree through the University of British Columbia, then come home and start door-knocking in the community, eventually covering every house in the nation.

"I felt it was important for them to see me and get to know me," she said.

"Our council has been wiser in age, if I can say it like that, and having someone young in general I think is a change for our nation. But the people made the change because they voted. That's what they want. I think our people made a huge statement by voting me in."

Thomas campaigned around improving community development, supporting elders and supporting youth. When she was nominated, she was called "the new Snuneymuxw."

"Being a decision-maker in the community, you have to think of everything," she said. "There's a kinship feeling to it as opposed to voting in a mayor and (city) council. I wouldn't have run if my family didn't support me."

Another difference between city and First Nations politics - Thomas works with many blood relatives.

"I look around the (council) table and half of them are my second cousins."

Thomas said she is purposefully slowing down her previous momentum for now, and has no goals at the moment aside from helping her community, law, and potentially marriage and children. She also hopes she is paving the way for more young people to get into politics, and is very aware that she is setting an example.

"At the end of the day, if I can do it, a lot of young people can do it as well," she said.

"My grandma always says I have a thick skull because I always want to change things. I want to change them for the better and I do want to set the bar higher. But right now I'm paying my dues. I'm taking my turn at the council table."

CMcKenna@nanaimodailynews.com