It was a tense first five minutes of the ballot count at the Hupacasath House of Gathering on their election night earlier in April.
For the first five minutes incumbent Shaunee Casavant and former chief councillor Judith Sayers ran neck and neck in the vote count for chief councillor of the near 300-member tribe.
But the vote count of third challenger— incumbent councillor Steven Tatoosh— began to surge past the others.
Sitting quietly in the hall with family and supporters, Tatoosh watched as he caught up, went ahead by 10 votes and then more.
Tatoosh had won a councillor’s position moments before, a move that would have ramifications later.
Warren Lauder won one of two councillors’ positions.
Tatoosh never relinquished the lead and, at 73 votes, he won the chief councillor’s seat handily. His opponents garnered 27 and 39 votes respectively.
“I knew it was mine when I was up by 30 with 20 votes left to count,” Tatoosh said.
At age 33, Tatoosh is one of the youngest chief councillors in the tribe’s history, and he and his council are going to have to hit the ground running.
The tribe is grappling with a financial deficit, is locked in negotiations involving land removed from Tree Farm Licence No. 44, and trying to build a future for a growing youth demographic.
It’s a lot for the three-member council to wrap its arms around, but with the election over it’s all business now.
“I know it’s going to be a lot of work and a big commitment but I feel I’m ready, “ Tatoosh said.
Sitting in his office on a Sunday afternoon Tatoosh was poring over binders of information he’s expected to become familiar with.
Leaning back in his chair he reflected on his past and what brought him here.
He was born and raised in Port Alberni and has one sister, Alannah.
He is married to Bonnie Gus and the two have three children.
He served on the Hupacasath council for one term as a councillor before deciding to make a run for the top in this election.
“I got a lot of encouragement to run from people in the community so I thought it was time for me to step up,” Tatoosh said.
Politics has been part of Tatoosh’s life since he was a teen.
Standing more than six feet tall, the thickly built Tatoosh is quick with a quip and has a ready laugh.
He listens intently before answering, a trait that was honed by his late grandmother, Rosie Tatoosh
“She was a big part of my life and she taught me to listen to people,” Tatoosh said.
“I listened at band meetings and I never spoke at one for about five years.”
Tatoosh takes the helm at a time when the tribe is wrestling with a significant deficit, the bulk of which was incurred during a Supreme Court challenge involving TFL 44.
A working group has been assembled that will advise chief and council on the matter, and budgets and recommendations will be brought before the community.
Paying down the debt is a delicate balancing act though.
“We have to pay down the deficit but not cut too close to the bone with programs,” Tatoosh said. “It’s not going to be easy but it has to be done.”
Tatoosh has been doing a lot of listening during the tribe’s negotiations over TFL 44.
In November 2008, the B.C. Supreme Court ruled that the provincial government failed to consult with the Hupacasath First Nation before removing 77,000 hectares of land from TFL 44 in 2004.
The negotiations are ongoing but winding down now, and an announcement will come in the near future, he said.
Relations with Hupacasath’s sister nation in Port Alberni are an issue of interest as well.
Hupacasath has its own interests and community to look out for, but there’s no reason for relations to be adversarial, Tatoosh said.
“I’ve got cousins on their council who I speak to regularly and that’s the key — to communicate.”
But he has a more pragmatic reason to keep relations cordial.
“Neither one of us is going anywhere and we’re both here to stay,” he said.
Family and youth are reoccurring themes with Tatoosh.
He’s not shy about saying that he’s been on welfare and that he worked sporadically in his youth.
The tribe’s unemployment rate is “significantly high”, he said, and working for two weeks at a time has to change.
“You can’t raise a family on that and you can’t build a future on that either.”
Some projects are in the hopper but its too early to say how they’ll pan out, Tatoosh said.
As of this writing the tribe is mired in a byelection that is set to finish before the end of May.
The byelection was called after Tatoosh allowed his name to stand for both the chief councillor and one of two council positions — both of which he won.
“I let my name stand out of respect for the people who nominated me for the positions,” he explained.
Tatoosh packed up his office on a late afternoon and prepared to head home and “spend time with my fam,” he said.
He acknowledged his predecessors Sayers and Casavant, saying that he wants to build on their work.
“But I really feel that it’s my time.”