Snuneymuxw First Nation members put on a stoic face Tuesday during National Aboriginal Day, but it was with a heavy heart knowing one of their leaders was gravely ill.
Snuneymuxw Coun. Jeff Thomas died at 11:50 p.m. Tuesday after a two-month battle with brain cancer. He was 64.
Thomas, a former fisherman and Snuneymuxw councillor since 1994, never let go of his passion for fishing, even as his band’s fishing fleet shrunk from 300 boats in the 1950s to just one or two boats today.
A member of the First Nations Fishing Council, Thomas knew how important it was for Snuneymuxw’s economy to continue to search for new ways to use the ocean and local rivers as a resource. He also worked diligently with young people and other communities to hold on to the fishing traditions and customs he grew up on so as to not be forgotten by younger generations of First Nations members.
“He was a fisherman right up to his final days,” said Snuneymuxw Chief Douglas White III (Kwulasultun). “A fact that always tore at him was the loss of our fishing industry. He grew up in Snuneymuxw where there were a lot of fishermen and the people would be out fishing constantly and over his lifetime he saw that dwindle down to just a few boats. To him that was a significant issue he worked hard to address. He really enjoyed the way of life and the lifestyle of a fisherman.”
White called his friend and colleague’s death “absolutely devastating”.
Thomas worked on boats all along the B.C. coast during his life. When he was no longer able to make a living at fishing, Thomas turned to politics and became a band councillor in 1994.
Right from the start, he continued on advocating for fishing, helping Snuneymuxw establish a shellfish industry that is an important part of the band’s economy today. He also organized youth trips to teach them how to fish and hunt, maintaining First Nations customs and culture.
As part of the First Nations Fisheries Council, Thomas was scheduled to go before the Cohen Commission to provide information and ideas on how to better manage declining salmon stocks.
While fishing was always at the forefront, Thomas also worked to ensure economic development was a top priority for Snuneymuxw’s council. Because of his ability to connect with other people both in his own culture and outside of it, Thomas was well-known in many communities across the province.
“I’ve been on the phone for the past two days with leaders from all over the province,” said White. “Chiefs and grand chiefs, people from all over the province know Jeff and know him as one of the great advocates for our people, even before he was involved in politics. They remember him from when he was a young man at protests, he was always in the mix, constantly making sure his voice was heard.”
White added that Thomas was known and respected for his contributions locally and throughout other First Nations bands. Thomas also worked with Islands Trust representatives to help connect cultures and communities throughout Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands.
Sheila Malcolmson, Gabriola Island Trust representative, said the legacy Thomas leaves behind will endure for a long time to come. During treaty negotiations in the early 2000s, Malcolmson said tension between Gabriolans and Snuneymuxw First Nation grew because negotiations took place with little local representation for either Snuneyxmuxw or Gabriolans, which built resentment and distrust on both sides.
“It created some very bad feelings in the Gabriola community,” said Malcolmson. “People were suspicious because they didn’t know what was happening and they assumed the worst. This was before I was a trustee and I don’t mind saying I was horrified to hear the tone and racist remarks expressed in those public meetings.”
But Thomas and Snuneymuxw representative Geraldine Manson continued to attend the meetings despite those words, and over time developed a trust and understanding with Gabriolans.
“They sat there in their power and calmness and listened and they heard all of it,” said Malcolmson. “That’s what made me want to become a representative of the Islands Trust, to change that tone.”
Though the treaty was never ratified, Snuneymuxw and Islands Trust did sign a protocol agreement, made possible by the work Thomas and Manson had done during the negotiations.
“In retrospect, as far as the relationship between our communities, I think [the treaty negotiation] was a good thing,” said Malcolmson. “By the end of the treaty people were already starting to modify their language. We were already able to see the impact Geraldine and Jeff had on our community just be being a constant relationship and a constant presence at those meetings.”
She added that should treaty negotiations arise again, because of Thomas “those conversations will be held in a completely different way.”
White described Thomas as “a great guy, very personable, friendly and kind. Always looking to have a good time with people and laugh and have fun.”
He said it was fitting for Thomas to have passed away on National Aboriginal Day.
Thomas leaves behind his wife, Stephanie, four children and two stepchildren. A funeral will be held at 9 a.m. Saturday (June 25) at the Snuneymuxw Longhouse on Longhouse Road.