The Nisga’a, the Liberals and tourism

"We are building infrastructure. Now, more than ever, prosperity depends on reliable transportation and communication. As economies and cultures become increasingly integrated, connecting… people to each other and to the outside world is critical for the success of both government and business initiatives. It’s about building pathways – both literal and virtual – to opportunity."

You could be excused if you thought the above quote came from Premier Gordon Campbell. The sentiments certainly echo the message the premier has been spreading.

But the quote is not from Campbell; it’s from Joe Gosnell, president of Nisga’a Lisims government, in a speech he made at the Harvard Faculty Club Monday. Where the ellipsis appears were the words "the Nisga’a" in Gosnell’s original text.

The Nisga’a reached a treaty agreement with the governments of British Columbia and Canada in 2000, after several generations of legal action and discussions. The treaty, which was achieved outside of the current treaty process, is now held up as a template for other aboriginal agreements, in B.C. and around the world.

Gosnell’s words, including much of the rest of his speech, are interesting because they appear to suggest both the Nisga’a and the current provincial government are on the same wave length. And it’s not just the Nisga’a. Leadership of the Squamish and Lil’wat Nations and Aboriginal Tourism B.C., have all been working with the province on a number of fronts, including the 2010 Olympic bid. Interim agreements on a variety of issues with several other First Nations are said to be close.

This is encouraging because as Vancouver Sun columnist Vaughn Palmer wrote last month, First Nations land claims are "probably the single biggest obstacle to development of the provincial economy."

In Gosnell’s speech at Harvard he talked about the importance of tourism as one of the pillars of the Nisga’a economy.

The provincial Liberals have also recognized that tourism is a huge part of the provincial economy and are taking steps to see it succeed. Money has been found for the expansion of the Cranbrook airport, which serves mountain resorts at Kimberley, Fernie, Invermere and Golden. The feds and the province are making money available for road upgrades to the Kicking Horse section of the TransCanada Highway, as well as the network of routes between Vancouver and the U.S. border, which carries about one-sixth of all cross-border traffic in Canada. The recently announced backcountry sharing accord in the Squamish Forest District, a stakeholder-driven process that was facilitated by Lands and Water B.C., will be a model for similar accords across the province.

With the provincial government recognizing tourism, those in the business of tourism have responded. An informal association of mountain resort communities was struck at last fall’s Union of B.C. Municipalities convention in Whistler. Last month’s Council of Tourism Associations of B.C. convention attracted more media attention than in previous years, in part because members called on the provincial government to give more consideration to tourism values in land-use decisions.

While all of this signals an important shift in thinking and allocation of resources toward tourism, as well as towards negotiations with First Nations, it must be remembered that the provincial government is still operating with the largest deficit in the province’s history. Victoria needs more revenue and is counting on the tourism industry to deliver some of that. Perhaps that is behind the government’s failure to address the inequities of Whistler’s school tax situation and the finance minister’s lame explanation ("it’s very complicated").

Without stating it directly, Gary Collins has said that it’s politically difficult for the government to be seen to be giving any sort of tax relief to Whistler, particularly when "the richest community in the province" is already viewed by many to be on the verge of a windfall of facilities and investment through the Olympics.

But love it or hate it, Whistler is the model for much of tourism in B.C., and the school tax situation doesn’t bode well for other mountain resort communities in the tourism business.

What is needed is the completion of the shift in thinking toward tourism. It has to be recognized that the $1 million-plus per day in federal and provincial revenue that Whistler currently generates comes from a community, not just an industry. If that community is driven out by an unfair tax burden, tourism will suffer.

The provincial and federal governments finally understood that the Nisga’a could be a vibrant, contributing part of society if they were provided with the means to maintain their community. That is also what Whistler needs now and what other tourism-based towns will need in the future.

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