Sliammon First Nation and City of Powell River

The relationship between Powell River and the Sliammon First Nation provides a blueprint for many communities across British Columbia. For more than a century, the people of Powell River and the Sliammon First Nation (SFN) have lived side by side. The Sliammon, however, have not realized the same benefits from economic development as has their neighbouring non-Indigenous community.

Unlike many BC communities, however, today Powell River and its neighbour, the Sliammon First Nation are a model of cooperation and how First Nations and municipalities can achieve economic and community development through innovative partnerships based on mutual respect and open communication. For these two partners, it’s an achievement that happened, or at least started, by mistake.

The Sliammon First Nation is one of 20 Coast Salish tribes inhabiting the coastal regions of British Columbia. For thousands of years, the Sliammon occupied 40,000 hectares of territory that included land on both sides of the Straight of Georgia.

In 1879, the federal government reduced the Sliammon territory to six small reserves on 1,907 hectares located at Sliammon (the current village site), Harwood Island, Cortes Island, Grace Harbour, Theodosia Inlet, and Okeover Inlet. Their new lands did not include Teeskwat, their capital at the mouth of the Powell River, which became Crown land and 30 years later, in 1909, was granted to the Powell River Paper Company for a pulp and paper mill.

The Town of Powell River quickly grew up around the mill as the first rolls of paper were produced in 1910. The mill grew quickly as well, eventually becoming the world’s largest pulp and paper mill with one out of every 25 newspapers in the world printed on its paper.

While the distance from the Powell River city hall to the Sliammon First Nation administration office is just 12 kilometers, for generations, the two communities seemed much farther apart. In fact, for decades there was little official recognition or in fact any interaction between Powell River and the Sliammon First Nation.

As recently as 2001, there was only one sentence about the Sliammon First Nation in Powell River’s Official Community Plan, identifying them as a small village to the north of town. As current Sliammon First Nation Chief Clint Williams puts it,” We were neighbours, but we didn’t talk much.”

That changed in 2002, when the City of Powell River began constructing a seawalk in town. The city had not shared its plans with the Sliammon people and was unaware of significant Sliammon cultural sites along the proposed route. Early on in the construction, some of those sites, including petroglyphs and shell middens were inadvertently disturbed or destroyed.

Chief Maynard Harry and Sliammon elders confronted city officials about the situation. The incident could have easily led to a protracted conflict and court action, but instead, the Sliammon received an apology from Powell River Mayor Stewart Alsgard and an invitation to join the City as partners on the project.

Together, they secured additional funding to complete the park from the Ministry of Transportation and BC Ferries. The City turned over the $1.6 million project funding to the Sliammon to complete the seawalk, with Sliammon members and Powell River workers jointly completing the work.

Community Accord and Protocol Agreement

The new partnership ensured the protection of Sliammon cultural heritage sites and demonstrated the benefits of closer communication and meaningful consultation between the two parties. While the work on the seawalk continued, the City and the SFN carried this new spirit of cooperation over into talks about the future of the region and how to structure a mutually beneficial relationship that could better address their respective long-term social and economic aspirations.

The result of those talks was the Community Accord, which was signed in the traditional village of Sliammon in May 2003. The accord became the foundation for the current operating relationship and communications between Powell River and Sliammon First Nation.

First and foremost, the Community Accord recognized the Sliammon people as the original inhabitants of this land, and acknowledged their traditional territory, their unresolved indigenous rights and title, and their inherent right to self-governance.

It acknowledged the legitimacy of each other’s governments and their responsibilities to their members and residents. It also recognized that “the interests of all persons living in the two communities are best served by working together in the spirit of cooperation.”

To that end, the two governments agreed to “meet regularly to promote and encourage open and constructive dialogue.” They also agreed to “explore and initiate activities designed to facilitate economic diversification, to protect cultural heritage resources, to promote community growth, to increase investment and to generate employment.”

In June 2004, SFN and Powell River followed up the Community Accord with the Protocol Agreement on Culture, Heritage and Economic Development. In addition to reiterating the joint commitments of the Community Accord, the agreement specifically addressed land use issues.

Henceforth, every subdivision and rezoning application, amendment to the official community plan or land-use bylaw, and development permit and variance would be referred to the Sliammon FN. Similarly the City would participate in any reviews of land use and land use planning for Sliammon lands within municipal boundaries.

After the signing of the Community Accord, there were numerous examples of the improved relationship between SFN and Powell River. Among them were:

  • Sliammon culture and history was incorporated in the design of the seawalk
  • City signs now included Sliammon place names in Coast Salish language
  • A Sliammon welcome pole was raised at Powell River’s Ajoomixw Park
  • City leaders were honoured by SFN with First Nations names
  • The Sliammon and Powell River flags now flew side by side at a waterfront viewpoint and in city council chambers

From a governance perspective:

  • Powell River and SFN appointed intergovernmental coordinators and initiated intergovernmental meetings
  • An SFN member joined the City’s official community plan steering community
  • Powell River, the Regional District and SFN set up a tripartite intergovernmental community planning technical committee

The new relationship between SFN and Powell River would also lead to an important economic development partnership, this time between the two partners and NorskeCanada, the new owners of the pulp and paper mill which for 94 years had dominated the economic life of the region.

PRSC Limited Partnership

In 2003, the pulp and paper mill in Powell River was struggling through a downturn in the industry that had begun in the 1990s. The mill that had once employed 2,500 workers now employed less than 800. To offset financial pressures, NorskeCanada was contemplating selling off 325 hectares of mill lands in Powell River that were surplus to their operations, including waterfront property.

Aware of NorskeCanada’s intentions, SFN’s approached the company about the lands through Dave Formosa, a non-Indigenous board member of the Sliammon Development Corporation (SDC) and a co-owner of a local hotel with the First Nation. Among other reasons, the Sliammon wanted to use some of the land as a log dump, where logs harvested from its community forest license could be dumped and skidded to the water to be tied into booms.

As it happened, Powell River was also looking to acquire the surplus NorskeCanada lands. The City was looking to restore tax revenue lost through the downturn in the pulp and paper industry by diversifying its industrial-base and using the waterfront property to attract new businesses and investment to Powell River. The fear both the Sliammon and Powell River had was that NorskeCanada might sell the lands to speculators with no ties to the community, who would sit on the land until they could extract the value out of it rather than develop it in a way that would benefit the community.

As talks between SDC and NorskeCanada progressed, the City was brought in to discuss a possible three-way partnership. As the largest single employer in town, responsible for 65 to 70 per cent of the City’s tax base, NorskeCanada had a vested interest in helping Powell River attract new businesses that could help shoulder the City’s tax burden. It also recognized the potential of the lands to generate revenue and community assets that could improve the quality of life of its employees.

In 2004, NorskeCanada turned down other offers for the surplus lands and signed a memorandum of understanding with Sliammon First Nation and Powell River. Two years of talks followed and, in 2006, the three parties announced the formation of PRSC Limited Partnership, a three-way joint venture with Sliammon First Nation and Powell River to buy approximately 800 acres of land from Catalyst Paper Corporation, as NorskeCanada was now known.

Each of the three partners purchased one-third shares in PRSC through wholly owned corporations or subsidiaries created specifically for this partnership: City of Powell River (Powell River Waterfront Development Corporation); Sliammon First Nation (Tee’skwat Land Holdings Ltd.) and Catalyst Paper Corporation (0606890 BC Ltd.).

Catalyst sold PRSC the 325-hectares of property for $4.5 million, and provided PRSC with the mortgage at an interest rate of five per cent. The mortgage would be paid as PRSC sold portions of the lands. Once the mortgage was paid, profits generated from the residual lands would be streamed between the three partners.

The mandate of PRSC was: to keep the property under local control; to develop an inventory of lands to attract investment and create new employment opportunities and diversify the tax base; and, to be a community-minded company that respects the traditional values of the region.

The PRSC partnership provided numerous benefits and opportunities for the partners:

  • Catalyst Paper divested itself of surplus real estate, converting 800 acres of land to a secured mortgage.
  • SFN assumed a larger role in the local economy and shared assets with which to generate new economic activities and employment.
  • Powell River could diversify its tax base and reduce its reliance on Catalyst as a major tax revenue provider.
  • Space was created to relocate existing marine facilities to more appropriate locations.
  • Powell River now had a substantial surplus land base for future development.

Between 2006 and 2011, some of the lands were sold, but PRSC still owed $4.3 million on the mortgage. Of the $1.5 million in payments PRSC had made since 2006, only $200,000 had gone to the principal with $1.3 million in payments having gone to pay the interest. In 2012, with Catalyst struggling financially, the company offered its PRSC partners a new deal. In return for a $1.5 million payment from Sliammon and Powell River, Catalyst would discharge the mortgage, return the interest they had paid and turn its shares in PRSC over to Sliammon and Powell River. This deal gave the Sliammon and Powell River each 50 per cent ownership of PRSC, including the remaining 600 acres of PRSC land that hadn’t been sold for mortgage payments.

Both Sliammon and Powell River accepted the offer and an agreement in principle was signed in early 2012. Powell River will pay its $1.5 million by borrowing from its sewer capital reserve and the Sliammon First Nation will pay its share primarily from profits generated through its community forest license. Because Catalyst is currently in CCAA (Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act), the agreement is going through the CCAA process, with approval of the deal expected in April 2013.

To date, PRSC has led to the creation of 80 acres of green space and a 40-home subdivision. In addition, a 30-acre parcel of land is being developed into a livestock and sunflower farm and acreage has been provided for another farm to expand. Once approved, the agreement will provide additional economic development opportunities, such as a possible deep-sea port near Catalyst’s old deep-sea dock and green energy projects at the mill site.

Prospective purchasers must provide PRSC with plans showing how they will develop the land in way that supports of the region’s economic future and official community plan, and also demonstrate a proven track record of past projects and their ability to finance their proposed project.

Moving forward

Since PRSC was formed, the Sliammon First Nations and Powell River have continued to build on their relationship and work closely on a wide range of projects and issues.

Signs of the Sliammon people’s ongoing integration into the social and economic life of Powell River are numerous:

  • The Sliammon people are the first people you encounter upon entering the Powell River Historical Museum and Archives.
  • Powell River’s Official Community Plan now recognizes the Northern Coast Salish history of the region.
  • The official Upper Sunshine Coast Recreation Map & Activity Guide identifies traditional Sliammon place names, as well as English place names throughout the region
  • In 2009, a service agreement was put in place to share fire protection and library services.
  • In 2011, BC Transit bus services, which used to stop four kilometres from the Sliammon village centre, was extended to Sliammon proper.
  • The two communities are working jointly to address water supply and sewage treatment infrastructure issues.
  • The two have formed the Freda Creek hydro generation partnership to explore building a 34-megawatt run-of-river hydroelectric plant at Freda Creek.
  • SFN members now sit on the Powell River Regional Economic Development Society, and Powell river city officials sit on the Sliammon Development Corporation.
  • Government-to-government discussions are held at least six times a year on an agreed agenda.

The next few years will be exciting times for the Sliammon First Nation, whose population (approximately 1,000 members) is young and growing fast, with two-thirds living on reserve and over 60 per cent of members under the age of 40. After more than 15 years of negotiations, SFN are about to conclude the treaty process. In July 2012, they approved a final agreement with Canada and British Columbia, and ratifications by the BC Legislature and federal parliament are expected within the next two years.

With ratification of the Treaty, the Sliammon First Nation will quadruple its land to more than 8,000 acres of fee-simple lands. In addition to $31 million, it will receive resource revenue sharing of $650,000 annually for 50 years, fisheries and shellfish allocations, additional forest tenures, and taxation authority over residents on Sliammon land.

Welcoming that dynamic change will be a strong and stable partnership of two communities committed to making decisions based on shared goals and mutual respect.

Twelve years ago, an incident on Powell River’s seawalk demonstrated a lack of communication between the Sliammon First Nation and Powell River and the need for a better relationship between the two neighbours. Working together, the two communities built a new seawalk that welcomes visitors in Coast Salish language as well as in English and French.

More importantly they leveraged that spirit of cooperation and mutual respect to create a Community Accord, Protocol Agreement and PRSC partnership that today are models of municipal-First Nation intergovernmental relations.