A vision for the future
Special to The Outlook
“The elders of our nation have always had a saying,” says Justin George, chief of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation. “They said ‘when the tide goes out, the table is set for dinner.’
“There used to be a great economy here in Indian Arm, before colonization, and today our goal is to get back to that quality of life. I think the table is already set.”
The Tsleil-Waututh Nation used to number 10,000 people, living well off a territory that ranged from Mamquam Lake near Whistler all the way south to the Fraser River.
Today the 445 members call the lands around Indian Arm home, including the 225 living on the reserve near Deep Cove. Under the leadership of new planners, including Chief George, the Tsleil-Waututh seem to have a very bright future indeed. But, a few short years ago that certainly wasn’t the case.
“We need to be hunters of the 21st century,” explains the 40-year-old son of famed chief Leonard George and grandson of the even more famous Chief Dan George, in an interview at the band’s conference room. Joining him are land development specialists Ernie George and Evan Stewart. “That means doing things in a new way that balances social, economic and cultural needs while also remembering we are building a nation here. We have been living here thousands of years and we aren’t going anywhere. The elders say it is important to plan 500 years ahead so that’s what we are doing.”
Planning centuries ahead seems like a daunting task for a small First Nation with few resources. However, a quick review of the progress made by the Tsleil-Waututh Nation over the last decade shows an astonishing economic turnaround. Starting with a partnership forged by Leonard George with the Kwok family, the Tsleil-Waututh have built 1,200 units of housing in their Raven Woods development, with 200 more units underway selling from $850,000 to $1.2 million. Building key partnerships with the right people, say band leaders, is the key to the band’s future prosperity.
“The Kwok family share the same respect for family values as we do,” says George. “People used to laugh at us, First Nations people cutting down trees on our only property, but that was mostly third generation wood of little value. We have gone from a tiny company with two paid staff to 85 employees and growing, and the band has less than one per cent unemployment. Really, we are just getting started.”
While it seems that the Tsleil-Waututh Nation has already achieved a measure of prosperity, planners Evan Stewart and Ernie George say that the last decade has primarily been spent planning for the future. All of their traditional lands have been intensively geo-mapped with strict regard to all the players involved, including non-natives. There have been energy audits with a strong emphasis on sustainability. Stewart says elaborate plans have been laid for their entire Indian Arm territory that goes far beyond the traditional focus on fish and wildlife.
While planning and research has been ongoing for years, the turning point for the Tsleil-Waututh Nation may well have been the Olympics. The band is studying carefully offers for partnerships have come forth.
“We’ve been very proactive in building selective partnerships and we’ll have some major announcements coming soon with regards to new initiatives we are planning with solar and wind energy,” says Justin George. “These will be global energy partnerships, not local. For instance, in India there are 60,000 villages without electricity that we want to help. Fish farming, not on water but on land, is also on our list. We’ve signed a protocol with the Squamish regarding land claims. We are looking into acquiring plots of land around the Lower Mainland, off reserve, to do more land development. We are studying carbon credits. We may extend our eco-tourism company [Takaya Tours] to include canopy forest walks, fish watching and cleaning up the environment.”
The key for such a small band, say all three, lies in leveraging the resources they already possess. While the band now has little unemployment, they are putting a lot of money into educational programs, providing mentorship and direction for their youth. A job at the driving range or retail shop may provide a steady income but it doesn’t necessarily ensure a prosperous future.
“My dad says that education, degrees, diplomacy and partnerships are the tools of the modern-day hunter,” laughs Justin George.
Married for 14 years with two young children, the leadership torch has now been passed to him. “We’ve built partnerships with the government, like co-managing Indian Arm Provincial Park and Cates Park, and with the Port Authority. I remember when my dad was invited as a courtesy by [former premier] Mike Harcourt to the ribbon cutting for Indian Arm Park. My dad had to explain to Harcourt whose land it was. Things have changed a lot since that day.”
Rights and title to their traditional lands are at the core of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation’s planning. Last year the band dropped a bombshell when it announced that any developments on its traditional hunting and fishing lands – which they say include downtown Vancouver – would require a development permit from the band. The reverberations from that “stewardship policy” are still being heard at municipal offices around the Lower Mainland, and all three leaders admit the policy still comes up for discussion regularly on the reserve as well.
As one of the four First Nations hosts of the 2010 Olympic Games, the Tsleil-Waututh Nation received $17 million, monies the band has earmarked largely for land acquisition but with $2 million going into trust for cultural, education, youth and elder programs.
“Being on the podium with other world leaders at the Olympics showed thee world we are equal partners with other governments,” says George. “It was a moment of great pride. We want to continue to build partnerships with governments and companies who share the same values as we do. So far I think we are on the right track.”