Westbank First Nation

Hailed as one of the most progressive bands in Canada, and situated in one of the fastest growing areas of the province, Westbank First Nation (WFN) has positioned itself to capitalize on the unprecedented growth in the region. However, the journey to reclaim self-sufficiency has not always been an easy one.

“Our Members fought hard to get where we are today,” says WFN Chief Robert Louie. “Without the vision, drive and strength of our people, the success of our self-government agreement with Canada would not have been achieved. I am very proud of our Members and our community.”

WFN is a member of the Okanagan Nation and, historically, the Okanagan (syilx) people were self-sufficient and self-governing. Westbank reserves were part of the Okanagan Indian Band until 1963, when, with only one seat at the council table and little influence on decisions made, they separated becoming an independent band. In 1986, conflicts within the WFN resulted in the Hall Inquiry which made recommendations to make governance changes that would strengthen accountability, authority and certainty of jurisdiction.

In 1990, a Framework agreement to begin negotiating community-based self-government was entered into. During this process, WFN began fully implementing land management jurisdiction in 2003 under its own land code. After three referendum votes, the Westbank First Nation Self-Government Act came into force in 2005 allowing WFN the ability to govern itself within the framework of the Canadian Constitution. The positive impacts of self-government are numerous:

  • political and financial stability, and increased accountability and transparency of WFN government
  • greater cultural awareness and programming
  • increased employment, business and education opportunities for members
  • the authority to grant interests and licenses in relation to its lands
  • improved fiscal and legal certainty to investors on WFN lands
  • lenders and developers have the security of knowing that the land system of holding title on WFN lands is like the provincial land title system where priority of registration is recognized.
  • land title insurance is also available on WFN lands, and is the first of its kind in Canada

Achieving Sustainable Growth that Balances Community Well-being

Westbank First Nation’s five reserves total approximately 5,300 acres and are situated on both sides of Okanagan Lake. WFN has experienced rapid growth and transformation over the last eight years including both residential and commercial development. The assessed value of WFN lands has more than tripled, from $398 million in 2005 to $1.3 billion in 2013, and building permits have averaged $45 million per year. As this trend is expected to continue for the foreseeable future, a comprehensive community planning process was implemented to ensure that the membership had input into the direction of WFN. The 2010 Community Plan was created with input from members, Chief and Council and administration, and establishes the plan policies for WFN government, economy, lands and community.

The WFN Community Plan is organized around the syilx legend, How Food was Given, incorporating the principles relevant to building communities. The Four Food Chief’s guide WFN’s strategic planning – Chief Black Bear represents Governance; Chief Salmon represents the Economy; Chief Bitter Root represents the Land; and Chief Saskatoon Berry represents the Community.

“Culture is an essential part of who we are as a people,” says Chief Louie. “Entwined in every aspect of our government operations, economic development and community programming, our culture is there to guide us and help keep us grounded.”

To help support development goals and those of the business community, WFN formed the first Indigenous Economic Development Commission (EDC) in Canada whose main focus is business attraction, retention and facilitation. The WFN EDC advises Chief and Council on economic development issues and are working to build an environment conducive for employment of Okanagan youth and to inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs.

Location, Location, Location

WFN is strategically located along Highway 97, adjacent to the city of Kelowna and in the heart of the Okanagan Valley. Combined with hot, sunny summers and short winters, it is surrounded by beaches, golf courses, wineries, orchards and ski resorts – a mecca for permanent residents and tourists alike. As the area responds to increasing demands for development, WFN lands are desirable for future growth. As such, the WFN lands on the west side of Okanagan Lake are serviced with water, sewer and other utilities.

With a large traffic volume moving along the Okanagan traffic corridor every day, WFN focused their development on commercial real estate. Retail development began in 2006 and well-known businesses like Wal-mart, Superstore and Home Depot began locating on WFN leased lands. Over 400 businesses operate on WFN lands and WFN has the largest on-reserve commercial development on its lands in Canada – over 1.3 million sq ft., and generates $458 million annual GDP. (Canadian Business Journal, August 2012)

Groundbreaking ceremony for Okanagan Lake shopping centre

WFN/Churchill/PDG groundbreaking ceremony for Okanagan lake Shopping Centre, 2011

WFN began plans to operate their own shopping centers, but as they did not initially have the expertise or capacity to develop the malls themselves, they entered into joint venture partnerships with companies experienced in building and operating shopping malls. In 2011, WFN and Anthem Properties Group Ltd. opened Snyatan Shopping Centre. Snyatan, meaning gathering place, was the first commercial retail project completed and operating on WFN land that was owned in partnership by WFN. In 2012, WFN and Churchill International Property Corporation opened the second mall – phase 1 of the Okanagan Lake Shopping Centre which is anchored by an eight screen Landmark Cinema. Phase 2 of Okanagan Lake Shopping Centre is currently in the planning phase.

Road Building

As traffic volumes increased along the Okanagan transportation corridor, the Province recognized the need to improve safety and in 1983, entered into a contractual agreement with WFN. WFN agreed to give up the transportation corridor through their Reserve, if the Province ensured that WFN wouldn’t be ‘land-locked’ and that they would have access to their reserves, their graveyard, Westside Rd and Lakeridge, an existing 1970’s development. This road networking would not only provide access to WFN lands, it would also provide alternative travel routes in the area.

In agreeing to give up lands, WFN secured that their access points would be accommodated and in return would be compensated with equal size or value to replace those lands. In the past few years, WFN has had to give up additional lands to help accommodate new designs for infrastructure on access points going through the WFN reserve, so the province has had to develop a new contractual agreement as a result.

WFN approached the Ministry of Transportation and was successful in negotiating a contract to manage the $17 million Campbell Rd interchange. WFN has the distinction of being the first First Nation to deliver the construction of a large transportation interchange development in the province. As part of the agreement, WFN negotiated employment for their membership, based on suitability.

Building on their experience and success of the Campbell Rd project, WFN successfully bid on the delivery of the $41 million Westside Rd Interchange project and the $15 million Sneena Rd underpass.

Forestry

WFN holds a number of forest tenures within its traditional territory. Heartland Economics LP is WFN’s forest management division and over 90% of the forestry activities undertaken are contracted to WFN members or to other First Nations.

In 1986, WFN was awarded a woodlot license on the east side of Kelowna. The annual allowable cut is set at 1,750 cubic meters and the first harvesting project was undertaken by WFN members in 1990. A large portion of the woodlot was burned during the 2003 Okanagan Mt. Park wildfire, and in 2004, burned timber was salvage harvested. Harvesting has since been deferred on the woodlot.

WFN does not own or manage a log processing facility. Logs are sold to local milling facilities and are used for; dimensional lumber for home construction; specialty boards for finishing and renovation markets; post and rail stock for fencing construction and hog fuel for power generation.

In 2004, WFN entered into a five year agreement with the Ministry of Forests for a Community Forest Pilot Agreement. The WFN Community Forest is west of the communities of Kelowna and Peachland, and covers over 46,000 hectares. The boundaries of the Community Forest were selected to balance forest management with traditional use by the WFN members for hunting, trapping, food gathering and spiritual use. In 2004, the annual allowable cut was set at 55,000 cubic meters per year and was increased to 85,000 cubic meters in 2007 to help address the growing mountain pine beetle issue. A second block, the Derickson Block, was added to the WFN Community Forest in the fall of 2009.

The province replaced the 5 yr pilot license with a 25yr Community Forest License in 2009. The long-term license not only allows WFN the security to plan long-term initiatives, it provides the opportunity for experienced WFN loggers to work close to home and the opportunity for the next generation to work in the forest industry.

The Province awarded a replaceable forest license to the WFN in 2013. The license covers approximately 9,000 hectares of Crown land within the Derickson Trapline, a 16,000-hectare area in the West Kettle River region. This area is historically significant to WFN and is home to traditional marten trap lines. The new license has an initial 15 yr term and allows WFN the right to harvest up to 32,400 cubic meters of timber a year.

“Westbank First Nation is a rising force in Canada’s economy, creating jobs and a strong and vibrant workforce. This new forest license creates new opportunities that will have positive spinoffs for WFN and for the region as a whole,” says Chief Louie. “We have worked closely with the Province to make this license a reality, and are proud as we take another step to ensure the self-sufficiency and sustainability of WFN.”

Reinvesting in Future Generations

WFN band membership is comprised of close to 800 members and half of the approximately 480 band members that reside on reserve lands are under the age of 30. WFN also shares their lands with 10,000 non-band members. Yearly proceeds of WFN businesses are not only re-invested into other projects to continue growth and prosperity, but part of the income generated also goes back into the community to “revitalize the language, the culture and the community.”

Earlier this year, WFN opened its Sncəwips (sen-ch-wee-ps) Heritage Museum, dedicated to reflecting the heritage and natural history of the syilx/Okanagan people. With greater capacity and space, a wider array of educational and public programming, and permanent and rotating exhibitions are made possible. Displays include some of WFN’s extensive collections such as archaeological artifacts, historic and contemporary art, archives and utilitarian (baskets, tools).

WFN’s heritage repository became a fully recognized Museum, with a new syilx/Okanagan name, “sncəwips iʔ sqilxw sncəx̌wiɬxwtn”, which is a metaphor for heritage. In translation, it means a building or house image of multiple colours – a protector of First Nation heritage.

In the planning stages is a multi-million dollar, 12,000 sq ft Youth Centre and Sport Court. This centre will allow youth, child and family programs to operate in a central location. The concept of the centre uses engagement strategies to ensure the needs of the community are incorporated, while taking a “youth for youth by youth approach.” Construction of the proposed facility is expected to commence by September 2014, and the Centre is anticipated to be completed in the fall of 2015.