LETHBRIDGE - The University of Lethbridge Senate has elected Charles Weaselhead as the University's 14th chancellor - and for the first time in the institution's 52-year history - the chancellor position will be held by an Indigenous person.
Weaselhead says he's honoured, but also deeply surprised that the position was awarded to him.
"I am truly, deeply honoured to represent the University of Lethbridge, and to represent Aboriginal people throughout communities in Alberta and beyond."
Weaselhead is the former chief of the Blood Tribe and Treaty 7 grand chief.
As a survivor of residential schooling, he has devoted his life to promoting health, education and economic development issues for Indigenous people. Recently retired, he admits his new role with the University is a little out of his comfort zone and he welcomes the chance to learn.
"My past job as chief and grand chief have allowed me the experience to move forward with regards to building relationships and the complete engagement of our Aboriginal people going into education and the workforce," Weaselhead continued. "I've often said the aboriginal young people are the fastest growing population, and I think it is part of the institution's responsibility to provide new knowledge for our young kids so they can come back with a career."
The U of L is situated in the heart of traditional Blackfoot Territory, and the institution has a shared history with the Indigenous community.
From creating one of the nation's first Department of Native American Studies to adopting an Indigenous Protocol Handbook and the recent opening of the Iikaisskini Gathering Place, the University has grown in step with the local Blackfoot community.
The whole concept about truth and reconciliation has certainly been touched as part of this appointment, and Weaselhead says that's important because a large part of his work has been trying to have the mainstream and aboriginal communities understand the concepts of truth and reconciliation.
As a product of residential schools, he also has a unique experience to draw on as he moves forward.
"In 1967 I was awarded best-integrated student in the City of Calgary, and I went to the Montreal Expo on a free trip. That's part of my experience and being able to walk on both sides of our culture. My grandfather taught me well, we're bi-cultural, we have a strong Blackfoot cultural base and we also understand the mainstream. I think the university is going in the right direction with cultural diversity and being accessible to all walks of life is such a really good point to put your emblem on."
Weaselhead has worked on numerous boards and committees in his career, including the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, Community Violence Prevention on the Blood Reserve, the First Nations Governance Centre, the Assembly of First Nations Chiefs' Committee on Health and the Alberta First Nations Information Governance Centre's Chiefs' Senate.
He was a signatory to the Alberta Protocol Agreement on Government-to-Government Relations and the Memorandum of Understanding on First Nations Education.
Despite that deep portfolio, Weaselhead admits the first few months will be a learning curve for him.
"I need to do a little bit of research on the past chancellor and what she has done. I need to understand the successes and where some of the challenges and barriers are, not just with the university but with our students and faculty," Weaselhead said, adding once he understands where they'd like to go, it'll be good to look back and see how the university has progressed.
As far as the representation that the first Indigenous chancellor in the U of L's history, Weaselhead believes it speaks volumes for itself.
"Right now, we're in a period where our young people, especially in my home communities, are battling opioid addictions and we have an emergency crisis. With this appointment with myself as the chancellor of the University of Lethbridge, I think it gets our young people putting on their thinking caps that they can get to this position too. We need to move forward with education, we need to understand that there is life outside of the reserve community and that we can attain some of those successes."
As a noted determined leader, who fosters relationship building in resolving social issues facing Indigenous people, and Weaselhead has worked with every level of government in championing his vision for a truly reconciled community.
University President and vice-chancellor, Dr. Mike Mahon, says they too are honoured that Weaselhead accepted the role of chancellor, something that he believes is long overdue.
When Mahon was preparing to welcome Weaselhead on stage at the announcement on Friday, Feb. 1, he got a little choked up. He says it wasn't planned, but it did show his Irish roots.
"This is such a momentous day for our university that has had such a long-standing commitment to supporting our Indigenous community. My emotion is in the fact that I'm so proud of our university that we made the decision to recognize the importance of our Indigenous community here in Lethbridge and around Southern Alberta. To recognize the importance of truth and reconciliation, but also recognizing Charlie for who he is. An amazing leader, a great businessman, a fantastic communicator and somebody that's really made a difference both in his community as well as the broader community."
Mahon believes that Weaselhead will be a fantastic symbol for their university, but in particular with their Indigenous students.
"They will see him as someone to be inspired by, and somebody to help them with their struggles as students. It will also be a very important symbol for our non-Indigenous students, faculty, staff and the community to recognize the importance of having Indigenous leadership on our campus. The symbol he will provide in our part of the province, Alberta, Canada and beyond will be very important."
Weaselhead holds a Certificate of Hospital and Health Care Administration from the University of Saskatchewan and has served on the Board of Directors for Athabasca University.
He will officially be installed as the University's 14th chancellor at 2019 Spring Convocation, and he succeeds Janice Varzari who served as chancellor since 2015.
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