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Meet Chris (Syeta’xtn) Lewis, Director of Indigenous Initiatives and Reconciliation

June 05, 2023

With meaningful and enduring ties to SFU, alumnus Chris (Syeta’xtn) Lewis (BA ’05) has enriched the university community in many ways⁠—from serving as a member and chair of the Board of Governors to co-leading the Aboriginal Reconciliation Council. In 2021, Syeta’xtn was recognized with the Chancellor’s Distinguished Service Award for his significant contributions and commitment to building a better SFU.

In his current role as Director, Indigenous Initiatives and Reconciliation, Syeta’xtn continues to make an impact by guiding SFU toward Truth, Reconciliation and Indigenization. Syeta’xtn also remains an active community leader after completing his third consecutive four-year term in 2021 as elected councillor and spokesperson with Squamish Nation.

Learn more about Syeta’xtn, the importance of weaving Indigeneity into the fabric of SFU, and how we all play a part in this work.

What do you enjoy most about being a part of the SFU community?

Without a doubt, it’s the people. From being an SFU student to now working at the university, I’ve been able to meet students from around the world, faculty, staff, senior leadership, and all the amazing front-line workers—from the friendly faces at Renaissance Coffee to the IT staff who support our meetings. Some are everyday faces we see, and some are behind the scenes, but they are the ones helping make the university move.

You’ve served as a deeply valued advisor to senior leadership SFU for many yearswhy is it important for you to give back to your alma mater?

My thinking is rooted in the Indigenous ways of giving and reciprocity, and so serving the university was one way to give back the teachings that I was given. Beyond giving back, I truly feel like SFU is on the cusp of doing something transformative around Truth, Reconciliation and Indigenization, and creating a space where Indigenous peoples can belong and harness their gifts. One of the most exciting projects underway, for example, is the First Peoples’ Gathering House on Burnaby Mountain. When you feel that energy of creating a purpose-driven Indigenous space, after decades of advocacy from our Indigenous peoples, it sends a signal of a systemic shift which will allow Indigenous ways of knowing to be illuminated. That is what makes me excited for the future.  

Who would you say inspires you the most, and why?

There are so many, but I will focus on what these individuals were doing that inspired me. For me, I am inspired by the people who work hard and empower the continued resurgence of Indigenous culture and ways of knowing. It’s our Indigenous peoples who are bridge builders, trailblazers, and open doors for others to rise and be resilient. It could be a single parent or an Elder who decided to go back to school, or a young person who overcame barriers to find a career—we see these resilient people everyday! These individuals remind me to get up every morning and continue this important work.

What is the most important lesson you have learned that informs your leadership approach?

To listen—and truly listen. Genuinely seek advice and guidance from those who are on this journey with you. The people who need to be in the canoe are there or need to be sought out. Being a leader means not leaving anyone behind on the beach, but empowering everyone to paddle.

Most importantly, the lesson from the Elders to “always remember who you are and where you come from.” This teaching reminds us of our sense of belonging, connection and responsibility to the community or village we belong to.  

How can we uphold Truth and Reconciliation?

To quote Ron Johnston, director of the Office for Aboriginal Peoples at SFU, advancing Indigeneity is a collective and shared responsibility. To build on that, I use a canoe metaphor often. We’re all in the canoe. Everyone needs to get into the canoe, and everyone needs to paddle. There are no passengers in this work—we need the whole community to come together to illuminate the truth of our history and truly create a place of belonging in the canoe so we can start the journey of Reconciliation.

What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?

I always remember a teaching my grandfather once told me. He reminded me that it’s time to take our rightful place in the governance of our land and lives once more. However, we must be grateful to all the past leaders and what they’ve accomplished for us to have a seat at the table today. We must always remember that they fought those battles and charted a path, so we can enter into new spaces and see even more possibilities.

For me, I hope that I can be a trailblazer and continue to show our Indigenous peoples that it is possible to occupy a seat at the table—and that we must. I am reminded that it wasn’t that long ago where our people were not allowed in the room and didn’t have a seat at the table. My goal is to continue to create space for our people and build bridges between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples so that future generations don’t experience the same challenges of my time. I want the next generation, my children, to inherit a different status quo and relationship. Success to me is that I do my part in creating a better future and showing the possibilities for those who come after me.