A year ago, on April 5, 2016, Tla’amin Nation became a modern, self-governing nation within Canada. Minutes before midnight, its citizens threw pages from the Indian Act into a bonfire in front of the nation’s governance house.
Sparks and pieces of paper-ash rose into the sky as Tla’amin people were liberated from 150 years of policies that had undermined their independence.
As he left the bonfire that night, Tla’amin citizen Melvin Mitchell was enthusiastic and full of energy.
“I am a free man for the first time in my life,” said Mitchell. “All my life the [Indian Act] has been over my head and tonight I am free. Can you imagine?”
It would be hard to overstate how important it was for Tla’amin citizens to move from the Indian Act to laws and policy they have control over. Tla’amin citizen Devin Pielle considers it a highlight of the year.
“When we burned the Indian Act, a whole new positive feeling came to the nation,” she said. “It was so good to burn a system that hurt us.”
By contrast, the nation is now governed by elected legislative leaders and has control over its own laws and resources.
“We are in a much better place,” said Tla’amin hegus Clint Williams. “The Indian Act wasn’t a document that enabled us to prosper. Now we can plan ahead and generate our revenue with our resources and send it where we need to. I really like the breathing room. This opens the door for doing bigger and better things for our community.”
Last April was a time of monumental changes, according to Tla’amin community development officer Roy Francis. As chief negotiator for the Tla’amin treaty, Francis’ job was intense. But, today, Francis feels relaxed; he has time to share with his family and go fishing. His job involves implementing the Tla’amin Final Agreement (2016), a document he knows inside out.
Francis is ensuring commitments and obligations are met, and building new working relationships between Tla’amin and its neighbouring governments, BC, and Canada. He began by looking back to Tla’amin’s 2007 comprehensive community plan.
“I remember the early days of formulating that plan, it was like a dream, a visionary piece of work,” said Francis. “We invited a whole lot of input. We try to make a commitment to that plan, it captures our goals, our organizational structure. It is our roadmap.”
Tla’amin’s new administrative structure is based on four house posts described in that plan. Each house post has a member of the government executive assigned to it and a team of resource people who work together on strategic goals.
A positive indicator for Francis’ community service team is the recent reduction in Tla’amin citizens who are on social assistance. Francis said Tla’amin’s social assistance files have gone from 200 to fewer than 60 in the last four years. Part of his job is to reduce that number further, by training citizens for new jobs that are possible under the final agreement.
Tla’amin now enjoys the powerful combination of ownership of resources and lawmaking authority on its land.
Francis is excited at the opportunities for business and jobs in the nation. At the same time, the workforce is aging and he wants to encourage Tla’amin’s young people to return from colleges and universities.
“We are building a program to bring them into some of the work areas and provide an environment where they have support and can thrive,” said Francis. “We have a real emphasis on building capacity for our teams, and in the community at large, for those jobs coming out of the new and growing areas of business that our final agreement brings.”
Tla’amin has expanded access to wood on its land and experience in forest management. The nation has already engineered harvest blocks and signed contracts for 16,000 cubic metres of wood to be harvested in the coming months.
After years of discussions, Tla’amin is on the brink of opening a new log dump near the Catalyst Paper Corporation mill, said Williams. He said he sees it as an asset for Tla’amin logging and other customers. The nation also has plans to build a barge facility on the same footprint and possibly a fuel depot, said Williams.
Another new initiative is a hydroelectric project at the outflow of Sliammon Lake. Feasibility and environmental impact studies are being done around a plan to modify the existing dam and build a facility that would produce around three megawatts, enough to power the houses in Teeshoshum. The project would also mitigate river floods, such as the one in October 2014, which damaged the salmon hatchery lower down the river.
A fundamental change in Tla’amin housing also took place in the past year. Families gained title to land and homes where they have been living and there are new opportunities for property ownership in Teeshoshum. Individuals used to rely on the nation for housing and there was a long waiting list. Tla’amin citizens can now apply for mortgages at banks; the nation co-signs and secures the loans.
Tla’amin plans to award land within the community to citizens with mortgages, starting with 15 serviced lots between Tla’amin governance house and the health building.
Tla’amin’s constitution also addresses conflict of interest and financial reporting.
“The community wanted a transparent and accountable government,” said Williams. “The measures are in there pretty clearly, there is no misinterpreting the steps people want to see happen.”
Tla’amin’s government is required to hold an annual general assembly where citizens are able to see audited financial reports, hear reports from each of the house posts, ask questions and make recommendations. The first general assembly will take place in May. Francis said he is looking forward to the event.
“Our government and program people will be in front of the community reporting and updating on activities and plans for the upcoming year,” he said. “The community is invited. We will have a big meal and over a couple of days roll out information in each of our program areas. We are bringing people home who live in the cities. It is a good social thing to do as well.”
Leadership and citizens acknowledge the people who came before them, who believed and prayed for the return of self-determination for Tla’amin. Elders supplied their knowledge, and members prepared and planned for self-government. Francis feels a great sense of satisfaction in realizing those plans.
“This time last year we had a good sense of what we wanted to do, but it was still an unknown,” said Francis. “Now we are using it, finding a comfortable pace for ourselves and being open-minded in adapting that plan so it continues to grow. It is a wonderful place for us to be and we are enjoying it.”
Tla’amin invites Powell River residents to its governance house on Wednesday, April 5, to celebrate its first birthday. An open house begins at 5 pm, with opportunities to meet elected officials and managers and join in a celebration and appetizer social.