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First Nations’ future looking better, but long way still to go

First Nations have featured prominently in the news this summer, from the National Day of Action at the end of June to successful treaty ratification votes last week by the Tsawwassen and Huu-ay-aht First Nations.

First Nations have featured prominently in the news this summer, from the National Day of Action at the end of June to successful treaty ratification votes last week by the Tsawwassen and Huu-ay-aht First Nations. Locally, there have been some significant announcements this summer, and more are expected in the weeks ahead.

It was only five years ago that the Liberal government in Victoria held its ill-conceived referendum on treaty negotiations, a referendum veteran pollster Angus Reid called “one of the most amateurish, one-sided attempts to gauge the public will that I have seen in my professional career.”

A year later the 2010 Olympics were awarded to Vancouver and Whistler. Although the Squamish, Lil’wat, Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations had been included in the Olympic bid from the beginning, division within the Lil’wat appeared particularly strong in 2003. Vocal opponents said the outgoing chief and council had agreed to participate in the Olympics without consulting the Lil’wat people. There was talk of a $20 million “bribe” from the province to the Squamish and Lil’wat to ensure their support for the Games.

But the Lil’wat, who are not participating in the treaty process, and the Squamish, whose treaty negotiations are moving along at the same painfully slow pace as many other First Nations’, were not content with the status quo.   Under the leadership of Chief Leonard Andrew and Lyle Leo of the Lil’wat Business Corporations, the Lil’wat have developed a long-term plan that includes a number of economic initiatives. All done outside of the treaty process.

Fortunately, Premier Gordon Campbell also, if belatedly, has seen the value of economic initiatives, educational programs and land use agreements with First Nations outside of the treaty process. In the case of the Lil’wat and the Squamish, many of these are tied to the Olympics, but they will continue well beyond 2010.

Resource Business Ventures, a Lil’wat nation business, was awarded the site preparation contract for the Nordic centre. Newhaven, a Squamish Nation-owned company, received the contract to build the day lodge and other buildings at the Nordic centre. An agreement with Sea to Sky Highway contractor Kiewit provides the Lil’wat with $2.1 million for business investment, a commitment to develop a joint-venture business with dedicated work on the highway upgrade, and significant training and employment guarantees. Another company, Lil’wat Concrete, is making precast concrete safety barriers for the highway. The Lil’wat have also acquired 600 acres of land from the province, with an option for another 600 acres, through highway accommodation agreements.

The Squamish Nation, meanwhile, has acquired land and hold development rights at various locations between North Vancouver and Whistler, the Porteau Cove project with Concord Pacific being perhaps the most visible.

The Squamish and Lil’wat are also becoming deeply involved in Whistler. The Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre will open next year and, despite escalating construction costs, will be a focal point for cultural tourism in the future and a symbol of the increasing prominence of the two First Nations.

The Squamish and Lil’wat also own development rights in Whistler, through the Olympics, and will be involved in the operation of the Nordic centre and sliding centre.

Last week the province and the Squamish Nation announced a land-use planning agreement covering most of their traditional territory in the Elaho and Squamish valleys and along Howe Sound. A similar land use planning agreement was reached with the In-SHUCK-ch last month and additional agreements with the Lil’wat and N’Quatqua are anticipated. The agreements should pave the way for the completion of the long-awaited Sea to Sky Land and Resource Management Plan.

The In-SHUCK-ch, one of the first First Nations to enter the treaty process in the early ’90s, withdrew from the process in 1999 but then re-entered in 2003. Last fall the In-SHUCK-ch signed an agreement in principle with the federal and provincial governments and have been negotiating a final treaty agreement since the spring of 2006.

The In-SHUCK-ch land-use planning agreement signed last month is coordinated with an economic plan, a community development plan and an agreement with B.C. Parks.

These are all hopeful signs, signaling new directions and new opportunities for First Nations in the region. But much more needs to happen. For the In-SHUCK-ch, for instance, upgrading of the rough, dangerous forest service road that runs from Mount Currie to Harrison is essential if progress is to continue.

Mount Currie, too has made significant strides but it has also grappled with natural (flooding) and man-made (drug- and alcohol-related) tragedies in recent months.

Understanding and balancing the interests of First Nations will undoubtedly provide some challenges for the non-native communities in the corridor, but there will also be new opportunities. Exactly where that takes the native and non-native communities of the region in the years ahead is still to be determined. But the future looks considerably better today than it did five years ago.