For centuries, the Cheslatta people were hunters and trappers living on the shores of Cheslatta and Murray lakes in central British Columbia. In the early 1950s, the Aluminum Company of Canada (Alcan) built the Kenney hydroelectric dam on the Nechako River to power its aluminum smelter in Kitimat.
The Kenney Dam created the Nechako Reservoir, flooding 120,000 acres of the Upper-Nechako watershed, removing approximately two thirds of the natural flow of the Nechako River and affecting fresh-water fisheries along the Cheslatta-Murray lakes and river system. Approximately 200 Cheslatta people living there were relocated to Grassy Plains, approximately 50 km north of their traditional territory.
Today, the Cheslatta Carrier Nation (CCN) are based at Southbank, on the south shore of Francois Lake, 23 kilometres south of Burns Lake. They have eight reserves on 1,400 hectares, with all reserves located at least five kilometres apart. They have 340 members, with 125 members living on reserve, although there is no central community. The band office and other community buildings are located on a reserve about two km south of the Southbank ferry dock.
Over the years, the Cheslatta people have been resilient, creative and resourceful in meeting their challenges head on. To access more health services they built their own health and wellness centre. To access better drinking water, they built their own water system. They also got more involved in forest and mining and pursued unique, independent business ventures. A key part of those successful initiatives was building mutually beneficial partnerships that improved the self-sufficiency and the quality of life not just of their people, but their non-Indigenous and First Nations neighbours as well.
Southside Health & Wellness Centre
For many years, the Cheslatta believed that to improve their quality of life and have a healthy sustainable community, they needed better access to health services. In the 1990s, there was no health facility and just one nurse to serve the people who lived on the south side of Francois Lake. Getting to a doctor meant driving to the ferry dock, crossing Francois Lake, and then driving 40 minutes to Burns Lake. Indian and Northern Affairs Canada agreed to help, but offered only $400,000 for a small space.
The Cheslatta had a better idea. The neighbouring Skin Tyee Band and Nee Tahi Buhn Band had been offered similar funding, so the three Bands proposed pooling their funding and sent the Provincial and federal governments a proposal for a single health services facility that would serve all three bands, as well as non-native residents in the area. Eighteen months later, they received approval for a new $1.4 million facility.
To build and operate the centre, the three bands formed the Southside Health & Wellness Centre Society (SHWCS). Crown land was purchased off-reserve from the Agricultural Land Reserve and, after a year and a half of planning, construction began in July 2002. The Centre was completed in April 2003.
Today, SHWCS owns the land and the building. The Centre provides health education, promotion and treatment services such as new baby visits, immunizations, home care services, cancer screening, foot care, diabetes counselling, health checks and immunizations for children, palliative care visits, school programs, mental health and addiction programs and other services.
The Centre has a staff of 15, which includes six members from the three bands. The staff includes registered nurses, community health nurses, a mental health therapist, community health representatives from each band, and drug and alcohol workers. While the centre doesn’t have a doctor as originally planned, the community can access doctors in Fraser Lake via video conferencing at the Centre.
The Centre is overseen by a Board of Directors with representatives from Skin Tyee Nation, CCN, Nee Tahi Buhn Band, the non-native southside community and Northern Health Authority.
One of the driving forces behind the Southside Health & Wellness Centre was the late CCN Chief, Marvin Charlie. One of his proudest accomplishments as leader was the bringing together of the native and non-native people of the Southside, saying they always helped each other in the old days and there was no reason it couldn’t be done in the new days.
As Chief Charlie pointed out, “Since we live together, we also must work together and support each other forever. We are too small to go alone.”
For Mike Robertson, Senior Policy Advisor at CCN, the Southside Health & Wellness Centre project provides some simple but important lessons for other First Nations.
“Don’t be afraid to try new stuff and don’t be insular,” said Robertson. “Join forces and work with others. Being so small, we always look for partners outside and within our communities, and our projects always benefit those outside the community.”
Three Nations Water Project
At the same time that the Cheslatta were developing ideas around a new health centre, they undertook another project that would dramatically improve the health and quality of life of their people and neighbouring communities.
In the late 1990s, the Cheslatta Carrier Nation was faced with the same water quality issues that many other semi-remote First Nation communities experienced. Houses on reserve did not have running water, and the water that was drawn from surface water or drilled wells was terrible. In fact, in 1991 a federal National Assessment of Water and Wastewater Systems in First Nation Communities showed that less than 80% of on-reserve housing had basic water and sewer services.
To address these water problems, the Cheslatta worked with engineers on a proposal to pump water out of Francois Lake, run it through a water filtration system up to a water tower, and then gravity feed it to a 44-km long mainline that would serve not only their community, but also the neighbouring Skin Tyee Band and Nee Tahi Buhn Band, as well as the non-native community.
Robertson said the federal government was initially skeptical of the feasibility of the proposal, but when people in rural accepted the proposal. They liked that they could address the water needs of three bands with one project, and at a cost of $14 million, it was one of their largest capital projects to date.
To get the project built, the Cheslatta formed a society with the Skin Tyee Band and Nee Tahi Buhn Band, and divided the construction into three sections. Each band hired their own contractors and a project manager coordinated the whole project. The three-year construction project was completed in 2004.
In addition to providing clean drinking water to all three First Nations, the success of the project and the spirit of cooperation during its planning and construction strengthened the relationship between the partners. It also strengthened the relationship between the bands and the non-native community, whose water problems were solved by three neighbouring First Nations committed to improving conditions for every resident in the area. In fact, the new water system continues to serve more non-native clients than band members.
On the employment side, 25 Cheslatta members were involved in the construction of the project. Today, the water system is operated and maintained by three members of the bands and one non-member. To provide members with the skills and training they need, the Cheslatta have put eight people through water technician training programs since the project was completed.
According to Mike Robertson, the project reinforced the Cheslatta’s reputation as a people who get the job done and illustrated two important business lessons, “Be proactive and don’t be intimidated by the scale of any project.”
Recently, the Cheslatta have pursued several economic opportunities in the forest industry. In the mid-1990s, local timber companies and multinationals were logging in their territory, but there was no consultation or revenue sharing with the Cheslatta. In 1995, the Cheslatta convinced the Province to put a halt to logging in the area. The forest district relocated the logging companies to outside Cheslatta territory and gave the band five years to come up with a plan to log the area.
Initially the Cheslatta wanted a community forest license, which grants exclusive rights to a First Nation, municipality, regional district or society to harvest an annual allowable cut (AAC) in a specific area. Such a license can include private or reserve land. The license, which can be awarded competitively or directly, includes the right to harvest, manage, and charge fees for forest products and other products.
The CCN didn’t get a community forest license but, in 1996, they were awarded salvage rights to trees submerged by the Kemano power project, which created the Nechako Reservoir. In 2001, the Cheslatta formed Cheslatta Forest Products, a three-way joint venture partnership with Prince George-based Carrier Forest Products Ltd. and Oosta Resources Ltd., which was owned by a group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous residents from the Lakes Forest District, including six First Nations. Together they opened a $7.5 million sawmill at Ootsa Lake to process the underwater salvage timber as well as timber killed by the mountain pine beetle.
In 2002, the Province signed a community forest pilot agreement with the Cheslatta Carrier Nation covering 25,000 hectares around Cheslatta Lake, with the wood to be processed at the new mill at Ootsa Lake. In 2008, after 12 years of discussions, the Province awarded the Cheslatta Carrier Nation a 25-year, 40,000 hectare Community Forest License that covers most of the Cheslatta watershed and has an annual allowable cut of 210,000 cubic meters. The license area was centered around Cheslatta Lake, giving the band a chance to once again use their traditional lands to develop their economic base and provide for their people.
Unfortunately, by late 2008, the Cheslatta Forest Products mill shut down. At first, the shutdown was expected to be temporary, but due to the global economic downturn, low lumber prices, an expiring beehive burning permit, high fuel prices and the effects of the pine beetle infestation, the sawmill has not operated since and the planer mill operated only sporadically between 2009 and 2010. At its peak, the mill had employed 140 people and contributed $1.5 million per month to the regional economy.
Despite the mill closure, the community forest license continues to provide benefits for the Cheslatta. Currently, the Band has a contract to harvest 50,000 cubic metres of pine from the community forest. Preferring not to incur the costs associated with purchasing and servicing their own industrial equipment, they have partnered with a local contractor who supplies all the necessary equipment to carry out the work. Two Band members are employed on the project.
The Band is also involved in a large reforestation project in an area that was struck by the massive Binta Lake fire in 2010. The blaze consumed 40,000 hectares (400 sq.km.) south of Burns Lake,17,000 acres of it in the Cheslatta community forest. Once again they have partnered with a local contractor who will supply the equipment. The $500,000 project will see approximately 700,000 trees planted on Cheslatta territory.
Through these and other community forest license projects, the forests of the Cheslatta people’s traditional territory have helped them finance an ambulance station, bus service to Burns Lake, a school playground, a salmon smokehouse and a community wharf.
Chief Louie Paddle Company
The Cheslatta people are continuing to use wood from their territory in other unique ways. As an entrepreneurial people, over the years the Cheslatta experimented in making different products using the submerged wood they logged. When the mill closed in 2008 and lumber prices were extremely low, it left them with additional excess lumber.
In an effort to identify new economic opportunities for this raw material, they secured a research and development grant from a Western Economic Diversification Canada program called the Community Economic Diversification Initiative. The opportunity they found was as a supplier in North America’s $10-billion corporate gift industry. The Cheslatta formed the Chief Louie Paddle Company and set about carving paddles from the submerged and left over mill wood. Today the company produces 40 paddles per day, generating $80,000 in annual revenue.
“We get smirks when we say we make canoe paddles, but we were looking at 65 million board feet of 2x4s and 2x6s that we couldn’t sell, said Robertson. “So, we looked for ideas that would provide benefits and also reflect the historical significance of a tool in the Cheslatta culture.”
From each 2×6 that the Cheslatta couldn’t sell for $2 dollars, they now produce two paddles, key chains and other products worth $450. Ninety-five per cent of their products are sold in bulk to institutions, governments, conventions and private corporations to be given away as retirement or delegate bag gifts.
In 2009, the company invested in a laser engraver to replace the stickers it used to put on paddles. That helped them expand their line and better customize their products for customers. In 2010, the company also began selling its products online. Today, the company has 10 employees and its biggest sellers are key chains and wood products with customized engraving.
To date, Chief Louie Paddle Company paddles have been shipped to Europe, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and across North America. While profits are important for the company, Robertson says they don’t advertise and they don’t want to get too big, preferring to keep the business small and sustainable.
Huckleberry Mine Partnership
Huckleberry Mines is an open pit copper/molybdenum mine located 123 kilometres southwest of Houston on Cheslatta traditional territory. The mine is 50 per cent owned by Vancouver-based Imperial Metals Corporation and 50 per cent by a group of Japanese corporations.
Commercial production at the mine started in 1997, and from the outset, the relationship between the owners of the mine and the Cheslatta First Nation was contentious. There was little consultation with the Cheslatta. No Cheslatta members worked at the mine and the band received no benefits from its operation. Over the years, there were court actions and conflict over the mine’s dumping of untreated effluent directly into Tahtsa Reach, an arm of Ootsa Lake.
Then in 2011, the relationship between the Cheslatta and the mine owners changed almost overnight, after a change in management at the Huckleberry Mine. The mine was slated to close in 2014 and the company was working on securing approvals for an expansion.
In the years since the mine was originally approved, meaningful consultation and cooperation with First Nations on such projects had become a much higher priority for government. As a result, approval for the mine expansion was less likely if it did not provide the Cheslatta people with opportunities to benefit from a project taking place on their traditional territory. New talks between the Cheslatta and the mine owners quickly led to a memorandum of understanding and agreements on environmental monitoring. The Cheslatta also secured a timber clearing contract at a new tailings facility adjacent to the Huckleberry Mine, and completed the work with a local contractor who supplied the equipment for the partnership.
In December 2011, the Province approved the expansion of the mine beginning in 2012. The expansion extended the life of the mine to 2021, ensuring the jobs of 230 employees for additional seven years and adding approximately 70 new jobs.
In a bcocalnews.com story, Cheslatta Carrier Nation Chief Richard Peters said, “We have had our differences in the past and our relationship was very difficult at times. However, after a change in management early last year, we immediately opened up a new dialogue that lead to Cheslatta forming a modern partnership with Huckleberry Mines. This has been a very positive arrangement for both parties and we are comfortable that changes in environmental monitoring systems have given us comfort that the mine is compatible to the marine environment in the Cheslatta territory.”
Currently, no Cheslatta members work at the Huckleberry Mine, but two members have expressed interest in working there full-time and the Cheslatta have met with the mine owners to discuss two opportunities for those workers in 2013.
“If we have two people working there, that’s good,” said Robertson. “Most of our people have said they don’t want full-time jobs 12 months a year. Now we have two people that want full-time. We don’t disregard scope. Even one job is a start. Don’t demand 20 per cent [jobs for members] unless you can fill those jobs overnight with qualified people.”
The Province is currently negotiating revenue sharing agreement related to the mine expansion with the Cheslatta and other neighbouring Bands.
Since the relocation of the Cheslatta Carrier Nation people over 50 years ago, they have redeveloped their community economically, socially and culturally. According to Mike Robertson, their successful projects and partnerships with neighbouring First Nations and non-Indigenous community have illustrated some important business lessons.
“You’re never too small to achieve big things. Don’t let big things overwhelm you or daunt you, because you have to be fearless in the world of business. Be consistent and strong within yourself and stick to your guns.”
As for future opportunities, Robertson said, “We have the land and natural resources and a healthy population, that’s our opportunity. That’s all we have, so we work with that and do big things and we hope to inspire other communities to do the same.”