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Urban Commitments to Reconciliation

Meet Vancouver’s first senior director of Indigenous relations

June 19, 2023

In her career, Michelle Bryant-Gravelle has worked tirelessly to advocate for inclusion

A woman is pictured sitting on a white leather chair in a home.
Michelle Bryant-Gravelle sat down with CBC at her home to talk about her life, career, and her goals for the new position. (Baneet Braich/CBC)

CBC News: A self-proclaimed envelope-pusher, Michelle Bryant-Gravelle says she is driven by her desire for change and representation. 

Bryant-Gravelle says she has spent her entire career working to create inclusion in spaces where Indigenous people have typically been excluded — and hopes to continue doing so as Vancouver’s first senior director of Indigenous relations.

“I deliberately enter colonial spaces to change the system,” Bryant-Gravelle told CBC News, who started the role in September and is working to create a five-year action plan, based on the city’s UNDRIP strategy that was approved a month later in October, including 79 calls to action.

“This won’t be ignored as long as I’m sitting at the table.”

Bryant-Gravelle — who is from the Ts’msyen Nation from the Nine Allied Tribes of Lax Kw’alaams, and from the Gitwilgyoots (People of the Kelp) Tribe and Gispudwada (Killer Whale) Clan — says she has always had a passion for serving her community and advocating for others. But she never anticipated the community she would be serving would be 750 kilometres southeast of her original home in Prince Rupert.

A bridge between schools and the community

The pursuit of education brought Bryant-Gravelle to Vancouver Island University, with the intention of going to law school. But she says she had to switch paths when she became pregnant halfway through her schooling.  “That was really hard, but we made it through,” she said. 

A few years later, in 2000, Bryant-Gravelle earned two undergraduate degrees in arts and education, taking up to eight courses some semesters while raising her child.  She passed on her love for education in different communities over a decade, working as a teacher and later a vice principal, focusing on uplifting students while breaking down harmful stereotypes. 

A framed photograph on a table shows a close-up of a young woman embracing an elderly woman.
A photo of Bryant-Gravelle with her grandmother sits in her North Vancouver home. (Baneet Braich/CBC)

She recalls receiving a job offer from one nation after she brought her students on a field trip to their reserve.  “This was the first time [someone] had built a bridge between the school and the community by taking my students on a field trip to see that the reserve isn’t the scary place that people had depicted it to be,” she said.

Another field trip to an announcement about a community service project by Prince Rupert shipping company Ridley Terminals led to another job offer.  At the meeting, she called out their new initiative for tokenising Indigenous people, sparking a months-long relationship with the company that turned into a corporate affairs manager position in 2011. 

She also worked toward a masters degree in education at the University of Northern British Columbia around this time, graduating in 2014. 

Bryant-Gravelle continued to uphold her values of inclusion and representation while serving as president of the Prince Rupert and District Chamber of Commerce — the first Indigenous woman to hold the role — where she helped create a diverse board consisting of five Indigenous people, a majority of women, and a new youth position.  As president she advocated for the B.C. government to adopt and implement UNDRIP province-wide, and to make Indigenous People’s Day a statutory holiday. 

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A change and a shift

Being diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer at the height of her career in 2020 should have been devastating, Bryant-Gravelle says, but instead it showed her that she needed to take time to rest and heal — not only from her illness but also from childhood trauma.  “That diagnosis shut me down, and I call it a blessing,” said Bryant-Gravelle. “You can be grateful even for the crappy things that happen in life.”

Now fully recovered, Bryant-Gravelle says she looks forward to working with the city and Vancouver’s three local host nations — the Musqueam Indian Band, Squamish Nation and Tsleil-Waututh Nation — to implement reconciliation efforts.

She says she is particularly happy the city’s plans were made in close collaboration with local nations. “That’s the exciting part,” she said. “That really shows me there is a change and there is a shift in the way that we, as Indigenous people, are viewed in society.”

With files from Baneet Braich