Lifelong learner aims to boost capacity in Indigenous communities

Photo by Dan Toulgoet

Life has taken Billy Wishloff in some surprising directions. From commercial pilot to furniture designer, artist to community organizer, he’s brought his creativity and passion to a wide range of endeavours over the years. A recent graduate of the Community Capacity Building Certificate (CCB) program at SFU, he’s now focused on carving out a better life for his home village of Gitwangak (Kitwanga) and other Gitxsan communities in B.C.

As Billy points out, the journey to sovereignty can’t move forward without financial independence. “You’ve got to have an influx of revenue in order to build own-source revenues, which First Nations have control over,” he explains. “It’s important that social well-being never be compromised in any economic development. Own-source revenues play a crucial role in enhancing the sovereignty and self-determination of Indigenous communities.”

The main obstacle he sees is a lack of capacity in his communities. While funding exists for many much-needed Indigenous projects and programs, such opportunities are lost when no one in the community has the capacity to take advantage of them.

To explore ways to build capacity, Billy enrolled in the CCB program after hearing about it from a friend. In the program, Billy found himself sharing his extensive experience as an entrepreneur, community leader—and successful grant writer. But he shrugs off the notion that applying for grants can be both complicated and intimidating.

“I used to fly planes!” he laughs. “Those manuals were pretty deep, compared to a grant application.”

Billy’s aptitude for solving puzzles hasn’t hurt either. “I just dissect things,” he says. “I like to take things apart. My mom always said if she has a problem, she’ll give it to me: Billy will figure it out.”

One community project Billy certainly figured out was how to get funding for the Xaxli’p First Nation to offer a series of workshops to address gender-based violence. For his CCB class presentation, he walked his peers through the funding process that led to his securing $150,000 for three workshops.

While he generously shared advice with other program participants on how to access funding for their own communities, Billy says he learned from his peers as well—and even found some allies.

“I took the program with so many different participants and was exposed to other cultures and ways of doing things,” he says. “It was a great reminder that we’re not the only ones who’ve experienced oppression and other challenges. But working together, we can find solutions.”

Billy says he appreciated the flexibility of the CCB program, which allowed him to take classes at UBC at the same time. For years, he had been planning to return to university someday. Among his options, he considered learning to address land title rights, but ultimately decided a law degree wasn’t in the cards. “Not at my age,” he laughs.

Instead, Billy enrolled in the First Nations and Endangered Languages Program at UBC. He’s working to reclaim the Gitxsan language he never had a chance to learn as a child. His grandmother, who lost her Indian status when she married a German, had stopped using the language and it was never passed down. But Billy now recognizes the meaningful connections that traditional language can create.

“Language is involved in everything we do,” he says. “I’m not an emotional person, but something in me gets emotional when I speak the language. It reaches into art, land and title rights, oral history.”

It’s also one key to building capacity in communities, he adds. “When people start to speak the language, it brings people together. There was a generation where people were afraid to speak it and were not allowed to. But it’s coming back.”

A strong believer in the power of education, Billy is now back at SFU working on his Community Economic Development Certificate. It’s one more way he can support his community on its path to sovereignty. Plus, it’s another way to feed his appetite for learning, exploring, and building connections.  

“My brain was taught at a young age to multi-task,” he chuckles. “It’s what I do.”

—By Kim Mah