For Tla’amin Nation executive council member Erik Blaney, completion of a new gathering structure at kʷʊθaysqɛn (Shelter Point, on Texada Island) is a milestone reached after some bad experiences with local police and settlers, years of careful archaeological work and the unearthing of remarkable artifacts connected to Tla’amin history and culture.
The idea for the structure came after the concession stand at kʷʊθaysqɛn burned down on Labour Day weekend in 2012. Blaney helped initiate the design with qathet Regional District.
Blaney, who has camped on the island many times, said he knew at the time that the area was abundant with archaeologically rich shell midden.
“I knew that site was built on top of a huge archaeological site,” said Blaney, “so I flagged it with my manager of the day, which was Denise Smith, and said we needed to go over there and have a look, because if there are any plans to dig up and get rid of the old concession stand, it was going to destroy the old heritage site that was underneath.”
Blaney then documented the areas of archaeological interest, and arranged to meet at the site with Sean McGinn, who was manager of community services for the regional district at the time.
“We got off the ferry and we were on our way to Texada, and the RCMP pulled in behind us and followed us all the way from the ferry to Shelter Point,” said Blaney.
The police, explained Blaney, did not speak to him or other members of Tla’amin Nation, and instead asked McGinn why Tla’amin people were on the island, citing the myth that Tla’amin people did not travel to Texada because they feared the island would one day flip over into the ocean.
As archaeological discoveries confirmed, said Blaney, Tla’amin people in fact lived in the area for thousands of years.
“Our people lived there, there’s no doubt about it,” he added.
The encounter with the RCMP at the start of the project, explained Blaney, instilled a resolve to build a structure on the site that reflected Tla’amin people’s long history and culture in the area.
“It started off quite racist and ugly,” said Blaney, “so we talked about the importance of the site and what it would have looked like back in the day, and I had all these visions of bringing it back to what it would have looked like pre-contact.”
Blaney said he experienced more racism and hostility during the archaeological digs on the site, forcing him to camp out at the site to ensure its security.
“We had a lot of racist comments,” said Blaney. “Canada Day (in 2014) happened while we were digging over there, and we had one lady come and kick all our tools over and put Canada flags everywhere and told us we weren’t welcome in the park.”
Items they found (some of which can be viewed in a display case at the caretaker’s residence) included quartz microblades, highly processed deer bone and spear points gifted to the nation by nearby residents, some of whom, said Blaney, voluntarily registered their properties as archaeological sites.
“Out of all the nastiness there were actually a number of good people who stepped up halfway through and realized what we were doing wasn’t an infringement on their property ownership rights,” said Blaney.
The oldest artifacts they found in the area (with a limited carbon dating budget) were between 3,000 and 4,000 years old.
“I’m sure if we did more digging, we’d find some much older sites,” added Blaney.
Using historical documents from Homer Barnett’s Anthropology of the Coast Salish Indians of Tla’amin as a reference, Blaney then sketched drawings of what Tla’amin longhouses in the area would have looked like. An architect, Warren Hamill, was then hired.
Initially, Blaney had envisioned an enclosed longhouse structure to replace the caretaker’s residence. However, strong winds in the area meant an enclosed building would have risked being damaged.
The finished product, constructed by First Peak Contracting of Squamish, consists of four fir poles that support the roof, and gravel flooring. There is also a small fire pit (currently out of use due to the fire ban) within the structure, and plans to install interpretive signage.
“I’m just really happy to see this structure built after so many years, from taking it from a scribble and a bad experience with an RCMP officer to actually seeing it standing now; it’s really awesome,” said Blaney. “Now we just need some more of our people living over there. I want to be the first.”
Tla’amin’s cultural and heritage manager, Drew Blaney, was part of the team that was consulted early on in the design process. He said the structure is a little smaller than he had hoped, but that it is a “beautiful shelter.”
Despite the layout of the structure being open, Drew said it is very much in the form of a longhouse shelter.
“It’s got the four beams in the corners, it’s got bench seating around the outside, it’s got a fire pit in the middle, which resembles a longhouse for sure,” explained Drew. “It’s a spot that we can go to and practice our culture in the years ahead.”
In July, Tla’amin citizens visited the structure with the nation’s elders. There, they sang traditional Tla’amin songs, and the nation’s archaeologist, Colleen Parsley, gave attendees a walk through of old longhouse sites in the area.
“That was pretty neat to be a part of, and to see the structure itself,” said Drew. “We’ve been waiting for a long time to see it erected.”
Nancy Schmeister, qathet Regional District’s manager of technical services, said public feedback regarding the structure has been positive.
“This has been a long process to get to this point,” said Schmeister, adding that 85 per cent of the funding for the project came from Powell River Community Forest, and the remaining 15 per cent from the park reserve.
Construction of the shelter took just over one week, with timber supplied by Al Davies of Davis Ventures (also known as Texada Island Boat Yard). The district adopted a social procurement policy, meaning all the materials were purchased locally, and as much of the work as possible was done by local businesses.
Sherwood Contracting took on the excavation work, and Nadalini Engineering provided the construction drawings. First Peak Contracting purchased its construction supplies from Valley Building.
“It went as smoothly as it could possibly go,” said Schmeister. “The timber in that building is absolutely amazing. I was absolutely floored when I saw the beams. They are just gorgeous.”
Sandy McCormick, qathet Regional District director for Area D (Texada Island), said she expects the regional district will develop a process for the public to rent the space, as the structure would be ideal for special occasions such as weddings and birthday parties.
“There are so many opportunities for this structure, and the fact that it’s covered means it’s also useful in the winter,” said McCormick.
A formal opening ceremony for the structure is yet to be scheduled, she added.
McCormick said her constituents have been impressed by the structure.
“While there were some skeptics at the beginning, I don’t believe there are any now,” she said. “It speaks for itself. You have to come down here and see it.”
McCormick added that she is thankful to Powell River Community Forest for providing the funding.
“Without them, this would not have happened,” she said.
Also involved in the project were Craig Galligos and Jason Francis from Tla’amin Nation, former Texada Island Chamber of Commerce president Cindy Babyn, and Mike Wall, former qRD manager of asset management and strategic initiatives.