Sixty-five years is a long time to lead a Nation.
While most elected leaders see 10 years as a lifetime in politics, Commonwealth countries are celebrating Queen Elizabeth II and her 60 years as monarch. But one First Nation leader on the west coast of Canada had them all beat.
However, Bert Mack (Deets-kee-sup), who served as Hereditary Chief of Toquaht First Nation until 2009, could not beat everything. On June 3 the 89-year-old leader lost a courageous battle with cancer.
The second-eldest of seven children, Mack was raised within the traditions of the Nuu-chah-nulth culture to one day take over the chieftainship from his father, Cecil Mack. And that he did. In 1944, as World War II raged, a 21-year old Bert was named Tyee Ha’wilth (head chief) of Toquaht First Nation.
He worked for many years on commercial fishing boats before becoming a logger, toiling up and down the rugged British Columbia coast for more than 30 years. His retirement coincided with the rise of First Nations politics in British Columbia. That put Mack on the front lines, negotiating self-government and self-determination for his people.
Mack helped negotiate an agreement between environmentalists, forest companies and First Nations as the latter battled for control of the forests of Clayoquot Sound. He also helped negotiate a treaty for 13 Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations that was narrowly rejected by other Nations.
In a rare move for this modern age, Toquaht First Nation had rejected the Indian Act–elected style of government, choosing to remain traditional, with their Tyee Ha’wilth at the helm. Mack joined with five other Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations who favored a treaty with the governments, and in 2000 they pressed ahead with the Maa-Nulth Treaty.
“I will never forget joining in the celebration of Maa-Nulth treaty and seeing him there,” said Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo in an interview with Indian Country Today Media Network.
“That night there was a particular sparkle in his eye, a soft smile and a sense of his incredible pride for his people. I remember his words so clearly: ‘Today we hold our chins a little higher, our shoulders are back a little bit more; we are free,’ ” Atleo recalled. “This was his vision out of his love and care for his people and stands as but one of many testaments to his leadership.”
After 65 years as Tyee Ha’wilth of the 125-member Toquaht First Nation, Bert passed his chieftainship on to the youngest of his three daughters, Anne Mack, in January 2009. He recognized Anne’s knowledge of family histories, cultural protocols, and Nuu-chah-nulth traditions in choosing her as successor.
Deets–kee-sup was specific in his wishes that he be given a traditional Nuu-chah-nulth funeral but that his ashes be spread across Toquaht territory on the southern shores of Barkley Sound.
Stories of him were told from the British Columbia Legislature to Parliament. Condolence messages streamed in from around the world to Lillian, his wife of 67 years, and to his three daughters, 11 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.
Remembered for his beaming smile, friendliness and sense of humor, he was also saluted for passing along his leadership experiences to members of the next generation, such as Atleo.
“As a hereditary chief, born into service of his people, he was unwavering in his commitment, always encouraging us younger people,” said Atleo, who is also a hereditary chief of his Ahousaht First Nation. “A true inspiration, he has left a legacy that will live on in the hearts and minds of our people forever.”