Chief Joe Alphonse of the Tŝilhqot’in Nation will receive British Columbia’s highest honour after serving his seventh term as Chief of Tl’etinqox, recognition he credits to his larger community.
“I was at home when they contacted me, but just before they did, I was told by the people that they nominated me,” Alphonse says. “Nobody wanted to tell me, because they submitted all that without my knowledge.”
Alphonse was appointed the Order of British Columbia for his efforts in supporting his people and navigating politics at a global level for Indigenous rights and recognition, according to the award’s website.
“Chief Joe is tireless in his efforts to support issues with his people in all socio-economic areas, is adept at navigating the often difficult field of politics, including at the global level having presented at the United Nations permanent forum on Indigenous issues,” the site states.
Alphonse says he was nominated by Shawn Atleo, Jay Nelson, and some of the “main lawyers that fought in our Aboriginal Title and Rights case.”
Atleo, a hereditary Chief of the Ahousaht First Nation, is the former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations. And Nelson is a lawyer who has worked with the Nation for many years.
Established in 1989, the Order of B.C. recognizes people for their outstanding achievement, in any field that has benefited the people of the province.
“The Order represents the highest honour the Province can extend,” according to the website.
Alphonse is one of 16 people who have been appointed to the Order. Other recipients this year include Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C’s provincial health officer, and Brenda Baptiste of Osoyoos who helped coordinate the $10-million first phase of the Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre.
Alphonse says he’s grateful for the team of people and community around him for putting his name forward.
“You’re only as strong as the team and the people that you surround yourself with, and I’m honoured the Nation has put a lot of faith in me,” he says.
‘There is a lot of proud moments’
Alphonse, born in Williams Lake and raised in the Tŝilhqot’in Nation, speaks his language and comes from a long line of hereditary leaders. He is also the Tribal Chair of the Tŝilhqot’in National Government (TNG), where he has served since 2010.
In 2014, Alphonse was a part of winning a historic precedent-setting Supreme Court of Canada Title case Tŝilhqot’in Nation vs. British Columbia that took over 25 years in court.
Since winning the case, the Nation has continued to work with the province and feds, to further the Nation’s Rights and Title through various agreements and negotiations — including attaining historic apologies from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, which took place both in parliament and on Tŝilhqot’in Title lands.
“I wanted to try to create a better environment for my people and get the people to believe we can accomplish things,” Alphonse says of Trudeau’s apology for the wrongful killing of six of the Nation’s war chiefs in 1864.
When asked about his proudest accomplishment as chief, Alphonse says, “bringing back our ways of governing, to have the resources to survive.”
During one of the largest wildfires in 2017, his community was the first to say no to a provincial evacuation order as community members fought fires and protected their homes. He acted as a protector of his people and land and achieved wide acclaim for his courageous leadership.
“I sat down and said, ‘no, we’re not leaving, we’re going to manage this ourselves,’ and we saved our community,” he says.
“During that time, everyone in my community had a role, you know, for three months we had harmony — we had cooks, security, firefighters, even the youth had a role to play.”
Self-government is critical, he says, and he hopes his Nation can inspire other Indigenous communities to practice their culture and rights, and manage their own resources, their own way.
“Canada is finally starting to see us for what we are — people, humans. I feel the time is right. We must keep fighting for our rights,” he says.
The Order of B.C. ceremony for 2020 and 2021 recipients will be held at the Government House in Victoria, B.C. in December 2021.