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Proud leader Ernie Campbell helped Musqueam stand tall

Over more than four decades, whether running for chief or councillor, Ernie Campbell never lost an election.

JENNIFER ROBERTS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

In the days when Ernie Campbell was growing up, and years before that, the Musqueam Indian Reserve was one of the best-kept secrets in Vancouver. Tucked behind bush and forest in the city's otherwise posh southwest enclave, the reserve was still without electricity, indoor running water and paved streets into the 1950s. With their children shunted off to residential school, it was a struggle for the Musqueam to retain any of their rich culture in the shadow of the large metropolis looming over them.

"We were so secluded, like we were just dropped here," says Mr. Campbell's sister, Darlene Point. "I would tell non-natives where we were, and they would be shocked to find out a reserve was there."

Today, no one needs to be told of the community's existence. The Musqueam are no longer an afterthought. They have become a First Nations powerhouse, cutting deals with governments, municipalities and developers worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Rarely does anything significant take place on their traditional territory, including the 2010 Winter Olympics, without their nod and involvement.

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While a number of far-sighted leaders presided over this dramatic sea change, no Musqueam stood taller and longer than Chief Ernie Campbell.

Mr. Campbell was chief of the Musqueam for 20 years, the last 14 in a string of seven, pivotal two-year terms that ended only with his retirement in 2012. His unexpected death at 72 from diabetes complications on Oct. 26 stunned and saddened the reserve, whose 1,200 members could be forgiven for thinking their long-time chief invincible.

Over more than four decades, whether running for chief or councillor, he never lost an election, a feat almost unheard of in the rough and tumble world of local native politics. Nor did he lose many other battles, whether in the boxing rings of his youth, on the waters where he skippered his beloved, 11-man Musqueam war canoe to victory after victory, or at the negotiating table. Backing down was not part of his nature.

"He knew exactly what he wanted," says Eric Denhoff, a former B.C. deputy minister of aboriginal affairs. "His approach was: This is what we want to do, this is why and here is what we need from you. He was a very tough negotiator, always looking three or four steps ahead."

During Mr. Campbell's later years as chief, the Musqueam pursued and concluded a dizzying series of lucrative real estate deals. They acquired title to the popular University of British Columbia golf course, plus another 22 hectares nearby; swapped claims to a chunk of land in nearby Richmond for an office tower in Burnaby; signed off on ambitious reserve housing projects with the likes of Vancouver Canucks co-owner and millionaire developer Francesco Aquilini; and parlayed their official Olympic partnership into tens of millions of dollars, plus a new community centre.

Musqueam councillor Wade Grant says Mr. Campbell was spurred by a desire to benefit future generations for years to come. "He would tell us: 'This is all so my children's children won't have to bang the table any more.'"

Yet despite these eye-popping transactions, perhaps no achievement gave Mr. Campbell more satisfaction than a modest breakthrough late in his final term, when he stood firm with protesters blocking a proposed condominium project over a Musqueam midden close to the Fraser River. While still chief, Mr. Campbell brokered the purchase of the site, assisted by $4.8-million in provincial funds.

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It was the measure of the man. Throughout his life, Mr. Campbell was resolute in his determination to see the Musqueam reassert their place in society and press their title to traditional territory that had been gobbled up by urban expansion.

That meant battling in the courts, too. According to lawyer Marvin Storrow, the Musqueam were responsible for three of the most important 15 aboriginal legal cases decided by the Supreme Court of Canada. "We have been here for 9,000 years, and we're not going anywhere," Mr. Campbell liked to say.

But there was more to the tough, often gruff, chief than his hard-nosed drive to expand Musqueam resources. As a younger man, Mr. Campbell almost single-handedly drove the resurrection of athletics on the down-at-the-heels reserve. He formed soccer teams, including the first Musqueam girls unit, and coached them. He brought back the tradition of war canoe racing, his fierce discipline spurring the Musqueam from a sad-sack crew to one that took on all comers.

And most notably of all, Mr. Campbell was also the guy who drove the school bus. A side of him little known to outsiders, he did this for 40 years, through two generations of Musqueam, to the day before he went into hospital. Grand Chief Edward John of the First Nations Summit says he lost count of the times Mr. Campbell would leave a leaders' meeting or important native gathering, explaining: "I have to get the kids home."

At Mr. Campbell's memorial service, a dozen sombre schoolchildren marched to the front, each carrying a sunflower to place on their bus driver's casket. Outside the cavernous gymnasium was their heartfelt sign reading: "We love and miss our old chief and wish he were here."

'Never let a textbook dictate who we are'

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Ernest Clark Campbell was born Aug. 13, 1941, to Mary Jane Campbell, a stalwart Musqueam, and a hard-working Irish-Canadian, Webster McKusick. The two never married, and their relationship did not last. But they were together long enough to produce seven kids. All grew up on the reserve. All kept their mother's name.

Despite his mixed parentage, Mr. Campbell never considered himself anything but Musqueam. His pride in his roots was a force in everything he did. "There was an ancestral knowledge that pulsed through his veins," says Wendy Grant-John, a former Musqueam chief. "It was something I don't think he had any control over. It was just there, and he was driven by it."

Mr. Campbell's daughter Jocelyn saw that firsthand when she once asked her father if natives were the loincloth-wearing savages depicted in her school textbook. He ordered her to tell the class their book was wrong. "And don't you be ashamed," he instructed. "Never let a textbook dictate who we are."

But being Musqueam also meant the torment of residential school. As a child, young Ernie was dispatched to St. Paul's in North Vancouver. Like many, he kept his experience to himself. Jocelyn says her father never mentioned his years at the school, until the federal government's official apology in 2008. "He came out okay, but while he was there, he witnessed a lot. I don't think he wanted to deal with it."

Still, it was also at St. Paul's that Mr. Campbell came under the tutelage of Alex Strain, who founded the famed Buckskin Boy boxing competitions for natives. (The first competition in the early 1950s made news across North America, when a group of nuns tossed in $50 to allow the cash-short fisticuffs to take place. Instead of bandages for his fighters' hands, Mr. Strain scrounged a bunch of strips used to lower coffins into graves. "We'll knock 'em dead," he told a reporter.)

Mr. Campbell and his brother Eddie excelled in the ring, winning trophies galore at both the more well-known Golden Gloves and the Buckskin Boy tournaments, which featured native boxers throughout the Pacific Northwest.

Even after he hung up his gloves, Mr. Campbell was not someone to mess with. Mr. John recalls a time when native leaders from across Canada were gathered in Ottawa for talks on the Constitution. Mr. Campbell became so incensed at the ribbing B.C. delegates were taking from other delegates in the bar one night that he challenged the worst of the verbal taunters. "This guy didn't know Ernie was a boxer," says Mr. John. "Ernie put him through the plate glass window."

Mr. Campbell met Carol at a dance on her home reserve of Chehalis in the Fraser Valley. He was 16. She was 15. "God, you're beautiful," the young man told her, and that was that. The couple married just after Mr. Campbell turned 20. They had four children.

He leaves his wife Carol, children Charlene, Ronda, Cary and Jocelyn, brothers Benjamin and Dunstan, sisters Darlene and Brenda, and three grandchildren.

'His priority was always to be … serving the people'

Mr. Campbell spent much of his initial working life with Wright's Rope, an industrial shop by the Fraser. In 1973, however, he took out a loan, bought a big yellow school bus and turned that into a lifetime job.

The hours left time for coaching, where he began to forge his leadership abilities. He was strict, demanding his charges take their activities seriously or quit.

During war canoe season, paddlers had to give up smoking, drinking and eating junk food. They trained at 5 a.m. and 5 p.m. On the dot. Latecomers were reamed out by their no-nonsense coach.

Brian Sparrow raced for six seasons. "One morning I told Ernie I had a cold, I couldn't breathe through my nose. He said, 'Get in the goddamned truck. You don't pull with your nose.' So he had me there," Mr. Sparrow says with a laugh.

But Mr. Campbell was not without a sense of humour. His reaction to a drubbing at a soccer tournament in Victoria during the Musqueam team's first year has become reserve lore. The coach looked over his downcast, mud-spattered squad in the dressing room. He began pointing at them. "You're handsome. You're handsome …," he said. "Now look at those other guys. He's ugly. He's ugly … We may have lost 8-0, but we're the best-looking team in the tournament." Then he added the kicker. "And I'll tell you another thing. You'll never get out-coached."

As chief, Mr. Campbell met a host of world figures, including members of Britain's Royal Family. During a Musqueam tour by Princess Anne, Mr. Campbell reminded officious royal aides that the Musqueam had their protocol, too. The Princess laughed.

But no hobnobbing with the elite could turn him away from where his heart lay. "His priority was always to be back home, to be on the ground, serving the people in Musqueam," says Ms. Grant-John. "It was something you see in very few leaders. Usually, they get absorbed by the bigger picture. Not Ernie."

One of his proudest moments took place during the first day of the 2010 Olympic torch run in British Columbia. The fabled flame was brought to shore by Mr. Campbell. Dressed in full native regalia, he held the torch high while war canoe paddlers carried him across Victoria Harbour for the official ceremony in front of the legislature.

The majesty of the event put Mr. Campbell in a rare, reflective mood as he rode back on the ferry with other Musqueam. Johnna Sparrow Crawford was among them. "I remember he said to us: 'Who would have thought we'd be standing there at a world event like that? Being received in such a way was something our ancestors could never ever have imagined.' It was a touching moment," she said.

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