When Chief Robert Sam walked into a room, everyone knew it was time to get down to business.
“As soon as we saw him drive into the parking lot, someone would shout, ‘Chief’s coming!’ And we’d all scatter to our offices and make sure we were busy,” said Jackie Albany, director of operations for the Songhees Nation.
Albany knew Sam as a great mentor and seasoned political negotiator, a man who drafted his own letters and never minced his words.
“In negotiations, he just said what the Songhees community needed and that was it, there was no negotiating,” said Albany, who worked closely with Sam for more than two decades.
Sam, 76, died on Monday morning at Victoria General Hospital after complications following a stroke.
Among his many accomplishments was being the driving force behind federal government negotiations that advanced the Songhees to stage 4 of a complicated treaty process.
He was also a founding member of the First Nations Finance Authority, a member of the Association of First Nation Chiefs Committee on Treaties and a board member of the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority.
He developed bylaws for his community on property tax, fire protection services and negotiated an education agreement with the Greater Victoria School Board.
But it is Sam’s character and deep commitment to the Songhees Nation that is most deeply missed by the Greater Victoria community.
“He scared the heck out of me, but his humour was unbelievably dry and wonderful and he always had a twinkle in his eye,” Esquimalt Mayor Barb Desjardins said at a council meeting on Monday.
Desjardins said Sam was a progressive and tough negotiator who was passionately driven to build a sustainable future for his community.
“You always knew that he was going to push you to your limits and you just always knew what he was thinking. He will be sorely missed.”
The municipal flags in Esquimalt and Victoria were lowered to half-mast on Monday to commemorate Sam.
“We are all heartbroken,” said former Victoria mayor Alan Lowe, who forged the first formal relationship with the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations when he took office in 1999, by inviting both chiefs to city hall.
“(Chief Sam) said I was the first mayor that invited him into my office to meet,” Lowe said.
He recalled Sam’s sense of humour.
“One time we had a fun challenge where we would have a race in the Inner Harbour. He brought his group of paddlers in a canoe and I had a group of paddlers on a dragon boat.
“We beat Bob hands down and he quipped at the end of the day, ‘Next time I’m going to bring men with me, as opposed to boys.’”
During Lowe’s term, Sam and Esquimalt Chief Andy Thomas started to attend all the major city events.
“He definitely wanted to tell the world that the Songhees Nation was alive and well,” Lowe said. “(His death) is a huge loss to the Songhees First Nation.”
NDP leader Adrian Dix and Esquimalt-Royal Roads MLA Maurine Karagianis chose to remember Sam in his own words from 2006:
“The strength and wisdom of our past leaders have served to get us to where we are today. The vision and commitment of our people will help us achieve our goals for tomorrow.”
Albany said she is working closely with Sam’s “huge family” to arrange a memorial service for Sunday, July 15 at the Songhees Nation Longhouse.
– with files from Roszan Holmen