Ashton Cooper.

Ashton Cooper.

First Nations woman runs for chief

Meet Ashton Cooper. She’s a 28-year-old First Nations woman running for Chief in her home community of Tl’etinqox (Anaham).

Meet Ashton Cooper.

She’s a 28-year-old First Nations woman running for Chief in her home community of Tl’etinqox (Anaham) in the upcoming band council election.

It is Cooper’s first time running, but she is not throwing her name in for a councillor.

“I’m just running for Chief,” she told the Tribune. “It’s all or nothing.”

Cooper said when she was 18 she decided she wanted to be Chief one day.

“I was too young at the time, but I knew I wanted to contribute positively to my community,” she said.

During her studies at college and university, becoming chief has been in the forefront of entire education.

“Everything I did in school was about what can I bring home and every class I took was about how is this going to benefit my community?” she said.

In 2013 she graduated from the College of New Caledonia with a diploma in business administration and management and then completed a bachelor of arts degree in First Nations studies at the University of Northern B.C. with a double minor in general business and environmental planning with a special focus in First Nations planning.

“When I started at UNBC I timed out how long it was going to take me and when the elections would be,” she said. “Originally I wanted to do a Masters and possibly a PhD but I looked at how long it was going to take me and decided it was time for me to go home. I can always do more education later.”

Presently, she is working as the project co-ordinator for Heathy Territories at the Tsilhqot’in National Government,

Cooper’s mother Eleanor Cooper has been a band councillor for many years.

“My grandparents raised me because she was working all the time,” Cooper said, noting it was her late grandfather Myles Pigeon, who passed away the year before she finished university, who instilled her with the leadership qualities she has today.

Motivated by a desire to get things done, Copper said she was inspired at university to learn how different First Nations communities have dealt with some of the same issues Tl’etinqox is struggling with.

“In seeing how they dealt with things I am eager to try and find a different approach that people have not tried yet,” she said.

One of her top priorities will be finding ways to engage youth, help them be successful and help fulfill their dreams.

“These are our future leaders, these are the people who will be running for these positions,” she added. “We need to encourage them to pursue education because education is freedom.”

Cooper also thinks her community would benefit from an Elders care home.

“It is unfair that elders are moved out of our community,” she said. “I know we have the ability to build capacity on the reserve to run one ourselves.”

Another concern is the number of children being taken away to live in foster homes.

“We need more certified foster homes for children in our community.”

Growing up at Tl’etinqox she has witnessed what she said is a “huge disconnect” to the land. A lot of people live on the land but they are not sustained by it.

“I dream of more agricultural farming to create food security because a lot of our people cannot afford to feed themselves in a healthy way.”

Cooper described incumbent Chief Joe Alphonse as great competition.

“He has been a good Chief and a good leader for us, but it has always been my plan to come back. And there will never be a good time to come back because I am always going to be stepping on somebody’s toes, no matter who I am running against.”

Since announcing her intention to run, Cooper has received mixed reactions, she said.

“I have got a lot of support from people who want change, but there are other people who don’t want change,” she said. “That’s OK though, people are allowed to have their opinion.”

Some have said she is too young and too inexperienced, but no matter who is running every chief has had to learn on the job it is not a job people are born into, she said.

“In every situation in life you always learn as you go, it doesn’t matter what you are doing.”

As for the 2014 Supreme Court decision on rights and title, Cooper said it is taking the Tsilhqot’in people to places they never dreamed of.

However, she said, it is important for leaders to concentrate on their own communities first.

“Without a healthy community we cannot move forward in a positive or major way,” she said.