First responders and other community members lined the streets on Wednesday afternoon to pay tribute to late Esquimalt First Nation Chief Andy Thomas.
Seenupin, or Andy Thomas, the hereditary Chief of the Esquimalt Nation for 47 years, died unexpectedly at home on Saturday at the age of 70.
He was remembered on as a champion of indigenous rights and was celebrated for his work in the community.
“He was a champion for our rights, for our territory,” his nephew Rob Thomas said.
Thomas says his uncle took on the federal government in his fight to have treaties honoured that were signed by his community in the 19th century. This dispute included the land where the B.C. provincial legislature sits.
Chief Thomas was also praised for promoting Indigenous curriculum in schools “bringing our heritage and our culture, our Coast Salish ways to the school system, to the educational system.”
Thomas also credits his uncle for bringing economic stability to the Esquimalt Nation.
He was involved in several economic development projects, including Esquimalt’s West Bay Marina, which was developed in partnership with the Songhees Nation.
Chief Thomas was born and raised in the Esquimalt Nation lands near the Township of Esquimalt.
Many stood along Thomas Road on Wednesday as his body was returned to the community.
“We had an honest relationship,” said View Royal Fire Chief Paul Hurst who was among those gathered.
“One thing about Chief Thomas is that he always spoke his mind and you knew where you stood, he didn’t pull any punches and that’s what I enjoyed about the relationship.”
Thomas helped develop the structure of the Assembly of First Nations and worked with the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs and the First Nations of South Island Tribal Council on land claims.
Victoria Councillor Marianne Alto said he began talking about two years ago about practical ways to promote reconciliation.
Thomas created two programs to promote reconciliation, which included members of the Esquimalt and Songhees Nations, along with representatives from the City of Victoria
“He never stopped challenging us in remembering that reconciliation would be an unnecessary word if it had not been for the actions of the non-Indigenous people,” Alto said.
“I have been honoured to know Chief Andy Thomas over the course of my time on City Council and particularly through our Witness Reconciliation Program and City Family,” said Victoria mayor Lisa Helps earlier this week.
“He was an inspiration to me and to Council, and his legacy will live on as we continue to walk together on this new path of truth and reconciliation.
Thomas was also described as a devoted husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, uncle and friend.
“We were all like his children. So he put his family first. He was loved, respected by everybody in our nation,” said his nephew Rob.
“And it’s going to be hard to fill his shoes.”
Family members and close friends gathered on Wednesday evening for a private prayer ceremony at the Esquimalt Nation Big House
A funeral service will be held for Chief Thomas at the same location on Thursday at 9 a.m.
With files from CBC