Chief Roy Whitney Jr., elected leader of the Tsuu T'ina Nation outside of Calgary, was marked for his role early. Born and raised on a cattle ranch, Whitney was working in that family business when he became a band councillor in 1976 at age 21 and chief at age 30.
He only recently stepped away from the cattle business, but says he can't point to a specific time that he chose the board room over the barn.
"I like to think sometimes people are guided toward where they need to be and they're given the appropriate tools, such as intuition, that assists them along the way in ensuring that it's doable, it's workable and it will create a positive at the end."
Whitney's impressive record of positive results has earned him the respect of his peers in both Native and non-Native circles.
Ronald Dodging Horse, a band councillor at the Tsuu T'ina Nation, has known the chief and been his neighbor all his life.
"He's such a deserving person," Dodging Horse said. "People look up to him on our reserve here and people respect his decisions."
That may be because Whitney has a history of extensive community involvement on Tsuu T'ina that includes shouldering heavy committee responsibilities in addition to furthering a larger Aboriginal political and economic agenda through his participation on numerous regional and national boards.
But his vision is broader than economic development alone as a marker of Aboriginal self-determination. One of his first major milestones was cultural: Whitney helped establish the Sarcee People's Museum in 1981. Today he's an ardent promoter both of Aboriginal education and the reactivation of his people's Dene language on the reserve. He says of the more than 1,200 people in the Tsuu T'ina Nation, only 60 speak Dene fluently now and he regrets that he is not one of them.
Of Aboriginal and German heritage, Whitney has made his mark in both Aboriginal and mainstream venues. He continually promotes First Nations resource development and management through events such as the national forum "Focusing Our Resources" which he hosted in Calgary in 1995. Current key positions such as board member on the First Nations Resource Council and chairman of the National Aboriginal Task Force's communications committee add to Whitney's high profile and the profile of the Tsuu T'ina Nation.
Ongoing responsibilities also include the intergovernmental portfolio on the Treaty 7 Tribal Council, and participation in the Assembly of First Nations' Chiefs Round Table on Education. Whitney's social and civic involvement extends to the board of the Nechi Institute, which trains addictions counsellors, and the board of Easy Street, an accident rehabilitation service agency. He's also a member of the National Parole Board.
In 1996, Whitney received a federal appointment as chairman of the National Aboriginal Development Board. This board provides policy direction to the government on First Nations' key business issues and oversees Aboriginal Business Canada with respect to trade and marketing, tourism and youth business initiatives.
In addition, he has boosted Aboriginal trade initiatives at trade missions and conferences abroad. In1980, in the political arena, he worked towards entrenching Aboriginal and treaty rights into the Canadian Constitution. He took a stab at mainstream political participation too, running as a Liberal candidate in the 1993 federal election. Whitney also formerly served on the City of Calgary's economic development board and the board of the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede. Last month he received the latest in a long list of accolades when the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation bestowed its award for Business and Commerce on Whitney at an awards ceremony in Vancouver.
Whitney says that in all his endeavors, at some point he asks the Elders to pray to make sure that he is being guided the right way.
"So I think the desire to want to help people and to make a change in a positive way has pobably springboarded me into this aspect of business development."
He describes his role as chief as doing the political legwork, political negotiations or discussions for the band. When it gets down to the administration of a business for which he has paved the way, however, he lets others take over.
"And I make that a practice. I think that's good at any level in determining what your plans are that are doable in a community. So I use my own intuitive aspects in seeking the guidance that I need to move forward with the projects."
He became chief in 1984, was re-elected in 1988 and has remained at the helm ever since. He can't say why that happened at such a young age, but he had a reocurring dream, which began at age 28, that he would become chief and should prepare for the role. A role he didn't think was for him at first.
"Sometimes when you're young like that, you don't always look at your dreams in the significance of what its true meaning is. I guess I didn't at the time, but I think in some way I was guided to be where I'm at and a lot of it is my own legwork and making sure that things are all right, I suppose, but I never had an aspiration to be chief. So when they told me when I was younger, 'oh, you're going to be chief some day,' I'd say, 'oh, no, you're crazy.' And even up until that point in time, when I started dreaming that I'd be chief, I didn't believe it."
Although Whitney didn't plan to be chief, since becoming one he has developed into a planner who weighs options and probable results carefully before choosing to act or not. For that reason, he doesn't find it difficult to alternate business and political roles and responsibilities. He avoids conflicts of interest by examining his role in advance in any situation "whether it be business or political. And I would be able to from there determine where I would best fit that situation, and to the point that I feel that I need to be there, then I'm there, and where it feels like I need to stepback, then I step back and the administrative business side of it takes over."
Of the many people who have had a positive influence on his direction, the Elders who have passed on come to mind first, Whitney says.
"I used to spend a lot of time with the old people . . . the generation of Elders that basically saw the last century come in were the Elders I spent a lot of time with, and to me they had a huge impact in my life in terms of talking to me, guiding me, helping me to see inside myself, to look at myself. To also, in a positive way, look at one's potential or the potential of individuals or a group, such as the nation."
His son, who passed away in April 1999, and his father have affected his outlook greatly.
"At the time you don't really notice it until they've gone and they're over on the other side and then you start to think back," Whitney related. "Like for my son, he really taught me, when I look now, how to appreciate life and really how short life is and that it's really not worth the hassle not to get along. You know, it means so much more if everybody could just get along. That's what I learned from his short life.
"With my father, he taught me immense patience. And kindness. My father was a very kind man. He taught me how to walk proud but humble. As well, you can walk with an inner strength - it's a silent strength - you don't have to be vocal - and it's a more calming and an effective strength than being boisterous."
"He has a lot of compassion for his people, that's what I know," said Dodging Horse. He goes out of his way to help people; that's how I know him and I always supported him, knowing that. He's a down-to-earth fella. I can talk to him . . . ."