Bigger Than Me: How Aaron Pete is building community and connection
If you were to go back in time and talk to Aaron Pete’s teachers, most would have predicted that their sometimes-slacking, homework-forgetting student wouldn’t have graduated high school.
That, at least, was a 24-year-old Pete’s best guess at how he was viewed a decade earlier. And the feelings were mutual.
“I didn’t like them and they didn’t like me, a lot of them,” he recalled in 2020.
Today, it’s hard to imagine not liking the affable and super-polite Pete. It’s also hard to imagine he once displayed a lack of personal drive and direction.
But it can be hard for any young person to figure out where they’re headed and how to get there. When your fridge is often empty, and when your family and your neighbours are just trying to get by, the obvious endpoints are not law school, board meeting rooms, and the backrooms of businesses that need your help.
In the beginning
Pete didn’t have an easy youth. And although he now will point out that isn’t unique—that most people face challenges they must overcome—Pete’s were more challenging than most. Although his mother hailed from the Chawathil First Nation, Pete, like many Indigenous youth, grew up off-reserve. In his case, that was in poverty in central Chilliwack. His family, meanwhile, was still dealing with the legacy of residential schools and the Sixties Scoop.
He had people looking out for him all around the Wellington Avenue area where he grew up. But he also struggled to sort out just where he was going to go, and what he was going to do with his life.
In Grade 8, after a year spent ignoring his homework, he had been relegated to a class for low achievers. Although he was shaken from that stupor by a teacher’s expectations and support, even when he made it to university, he would fall asleep in class when he should be learning.
Pete was smart. But looking back, he said he felt the need to overcompensate for where he came from.
“I pretended to know things,” he later recalled. “I tried to sound smarter than I was just to cope with the fact that I really felt like I was directionless.”
He was always articulate, he said. But it wasn’t always a talent he used for good.
“It was saying facts I didn’t really understand; it was trying to hold positions I didn’t really understand and almost grandstanding in a dishonest way,” he said.
“There was a part of me inside saying, like, ‘No, you don’t really know what you’re talking about. Right now, you’re saying things because they sound smart, but they aren’t smart.’”
Of course, those habits are not exactly unique in a teenager, whatever their circumstances. Over time, Pete began to mature. And like a lot of young people, Pete eventually came to the realization that he needed to shut up, seek out role models, and start listening.
By his early 20s, he was thriving—and self-aware. He was also increasingly conscious that while he had support from many, he could have used more role models when he was younger.
“I made a lot of mistakes during my high school life thinking how people should be, or how I shouldn’t be,” he said. “I didn’t have someone able to say, ‘OK, this is how you learn from other people, this is how to listen, these are the people you should perhaps look up to.’ Not having that, made me feel, perhaps, disconnected from the leaders in our community.”
That’s why Pete started his podcast in 2020.
The podcast, which he called Bigger Than Me, was largely an excuse to make up for lost time. It would give him a reason to spend a couple hours asking questions of, and learning from businesspeople, Indigenous leaders, politicians, scientists, and anyone else he thought had insight to spare.
Like Pete’s array of jobs, the podcast reflects his broad curiosity and interests. Recently, for instance, he’s been speaking to more elected leaders about political matters. But he’s also spoken to locals who have struggled with tragedy, and academics who have studied wolves and bees.
Many (though far from all) of his guests have also come from Indigenous communities. They’ve included business people, chiefs, elders, academics and historians.
As the podcast has continued—in April, he recorded his 50th interview—Pete has seen themes emerge, and heard stories, anecdotes, and insights that give him hope, both for Indigenous communities specifically, and for society at large.
Bigger Than Bigger Than Me
An entrepreneur at heart, Pete started working as a business recovery advisor for the valley’s two Community Futures organizations. He is also working for a local law firm, while he sketches out plans for a clothing- and home decor-focused business that highlights First Nations culture.
Robert Jago, a prominent Indigenous journalist and businessman, called him a “brilliant future Salish leader” when this journalist mentioned his name on social media.
And Pete has begun sitting on both the Chilliwack Cultural Centre’s board, taking a leadership role in a community institution, and on the economic development committee of his own First Nation. He plans to run this fall for chief of Chawathil First Nation or a seat on council. (You can run for both.)
He continues to pour himself into the podcast. It’s not yet a huge viral Internet success, but that’s partly by design: Pete worries that optimizing its run times and guest list for virality would sacrifice the in-depth personal nature that makes it so valuable to listeners and, crucially, himself.
In July, he interviewed Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun for more than two hours. That discussion prompted some revelations from Braun, but it also provided another glimpse at the past and future that drives Pete forward.
“I’ve experienced extreme poverty, so how can I never be in that situation again?” Pete told his guest during a conversation on personal challenges. “It’s very hard for me to take my foot off the gas because I never want to go back to a no-food-in-the-fridge experience.”
‘Don’t underestimate us’
Whatever is to come, in two years, Pete has already created something that should endure. With his podcast, Pete has built an unparalleled library of long interviews with present-day Stó:lō leaders and other Indigenous community members. It’s a public compilation that doesn’t exist elsewhere and is full of insight into both Stó:lō tradition and history, as well as nuanced thoughts about present-day issues and challenges.
It also means that Pete himself has spent dozens of hours over the last two years asking questions of leaders who are at the centre of a momentous time for the Fraser Valley and who are set to play a key role in how it changes in the years to come.
While in school, Pete said he became alienated with the negative picture that was painted of Indigenous people and communities.
“I got frustrated throughout that education of the description of Indigenous people as disadvantaged as, ‘We’re not doing well, we’re failing.’ And I really resented that, because I felt there are great leaders in Indigenous communities. We’re just not hearing from them.”
But now, looking around the valley, Pete sees reasons for optimism everywhere. picture at odds with storylines that he thinks have dominated public discussions for decades.
The Cheam First Nation has launched a well-received proposal for a gondola near Bridal Falls; Tzeachten First Nation and Shxwha:y Village First Nation are building thousands of homes in Chilliwack, and similar projects are being considered in Abbotsford and Mission. An array of Indigenous-led businesses are thriving, while the region’s full history, especially the fascinating millennia that preceded large-scale European settlement, is being re-examined.
Pete doesn’t brush over the challenges. But he says they illustrate a starting point from which significant progress has already been made.
“Yeah, we may have our struggles. But my approach was always: watch us bounce back, don’t underestimate us just because you can point to our crime rates or education rates. We’re going to turn this around.
“It’s going to take some time,” he continued. “The Indian Residential Schools only closed in 1996. Give us 100 years and we’ll turn this around.”
Pete says Indigenous culture and the history of the region can inform how people understand their region—and not just because of some sense of obligation.
“I feel like, growing up, I was taught to take an interest in Indigenous culture, but it was in a finger-waggy way: you should know it because you have to, not because you want to,” he said. “But when you hear from someone like Sonny McHalsie, you go, ‘Wow!’ Now, anytime I tell someone that Mount Cheam is [named] for Where Wild Strawberries Grow, and that wild strawberry patch is still there, they go, ‘That’s so cool.’”
Pete pointed to the Seven Generations concept: an Indigenous thought and decision-making framework that emphasizes how actions both today and in the past affect people long into the future. It’s a way of long-term thinking that everyone could benefit from, he suggested.
“What can you do for your children, your grandchildren, your great-grand-children to structure the world in a better way?” he asked. “Climate change is often how people think about that: we’re not going to pass on a healthy world for our planet. But there’s other examples to that: in our political system, in regard to bees, there’s lots of areas where we can make positive progress to hand off our world in a better way.”