Lifting a First Nation up by its Bootstraps
Lax Kw'alaams First Nation British Columbia
What has the story about a First Nation got to do with climate change, greenhouse gas emissions and global warming? Some would say "nothing" if they are not supportive of reconciliation; others, like me, would say "everything" as it is only by having the First Nations as full partners in any resource development will there be a path to full and honest reconciliation.
And for me, this is an unbelievably personal, professional and emotional issue - passion, strength and fortitude to do the world a world of good using the path through a circular economy to assist First Nations, and stakeholders and proponents to the best solutions for the people, the planet and for profit.
For full disclosure, I have spent 22 years working for First Nation communities; the first 15 years was as the Administrator/CEO for Lax Kw'alaams and with the leadership we experienced a most profound turnaround in the community. For the past 7 years I have been assisting First Nation communities in the far north with the same passion, strength and fortitude that I brought on my very first day.
An unbelievable and humbling experience I have lived, worked and played. Some may ask, "why write about it?"
The response is quite simple; The story of Lax Kw'alaams is a wonderful one. It is a story of hope, of tenacity and of success. All because many people bought into the vision and supported the community clawing out of a hole by their bootstraps.
Lax Kw'alaams is the second largest First Nation in British Columbia, with just over 4,000 members. The community, known also as Port Simpson, is located approximately 38 Kms north of Prince Rupert, BC.
In 1999, access was by a ferry from Prince Rupert to the north end of the Prince Rupert Inlet and then buy taking an almost 2-hour adventure over a pot-holed logging road. Thankfully, one of the projects we were able to negotiate was a road upgrade, which now includes a paved surface.
A Bit of Recent History
I am not going to discuss the tragedies within the history of the Lax Kw'alaams since colonization - it is there. We know it is there, and if you wish to see First Nation history that goes back to "time immemorial," I would recommend a fantastic CBC Series called "A History of Canada."
Lax Kw'alaams: 1999 - 2015
I can speak with some authority for the above 15 years, as that is my time, and I am part of the story.
Stepping off the float plane on a November, Sunday afternoon, I was immediately struck by the surrounding beauty and the vastness of the timber resource. I am certain there are some who are already thinking, "what he wants to cut down trees?" Save the "Old Growth!"
My first thought was, "I am here to help the best I can and the First Nation will guide me - and guide me for 15 years they did.
We did cut down trees and turn the resource into cash for the Band and its membership. But a big difference was we did not harvest on a large industrial-scale. Not many people had heard of selective logging in "old growth forests," but we did it, leaving the forest largely intact and today one would be hard to find where we harvested - leaving the remainder for future generations to decide what they want to do.
With that under our belts, the Band Council took a $9.8 million leap of faith to purchase Tree Farm No. 1 that had gone bankrupt. The approved harvest was 550,000 Cubic Metres per year; to ensure a sustainable harvest, we immediately reduced that to 350,000 cubic metres to provide a cushion for possibly unknowns in the future. The Tree Farm License is still in operation today, a testament to the who team, including the Lax Kw'alaams leadership that wanted to forge their own destiny, their own future, and their own opportunities.
There is also the community fish plant that had been sitting idle for a number of years; a team was put together and with the securing of fish quota and the financial resources to complete a rebuild, the fish plant has operated for the past 8 years, up to 10 months per year.
In addition, there are a number of other joint ventures and partnerships that have come out of sometimes very tough negotiations to assert the rights and title interests of Lax Kw’alaams with resource development projects in their traditional territory - it took some time to have companies engage with a new mindset, but in the end, they found a willing and professional partner that brought many benefits to the table.
A Legacy Project
In early 2000, there was a tragedy in the community. We were at wits-end as to what to do. A suggestion was made to ask the kids what to do. A novel approach to ask those most affected
They came back through a survey that they wanted a new gymnasium, and an indoor swimming pool with a water slide. They got it and it is now attached to a new school building that houses their own privately-operated school, which they took control of from the public system in 2008.
And, it did not end there. Unemployment dropped to almost "0" and with the successes, many companies stepped up to the plate wanting to enter business with the community.
Many of those initiatives continue today and one important statistic I read the other day was, at the Prince Rupert Port, where previously there were almost no Lax Kw'alaams members working, a full 38% of the workforce can now be counted as Lax Kw'alaams members. There are also tour and tug operations, and Lax Kw'alaams and First Nation employment across almost every sector.
Was it easy to get there - absolutely not. Sometimes, things got really tough, but perseverance has paid off.
Is it perfect? What is perfection? The bottom line is, it is working. Lax Kw'alaams and other First Nations are able to work towards being fully integrated into the business environment of the north - and isn't that part of reconciliation?
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