Constructive Relationships: The Lil’wat Nation’s plan for economic development

From collaboration to reconciliation: the Lil'wat Nation's plan for economic development

Murphy Construction is working with the First Nation to help build the Pemberton area

Midway up Blackcomb Mountain, a team from Murphy Construction Corp. is building a 23,000-square-foot storage barn for a new 10-person gondola that is expected to have the highest capacity in North America. The development is part of $66 million in upgrades taking place at Whistler Blackcomb in 2018 and 2019.

For a logistically challenging project of this kind—on a ski hill, with tough weather conditions and a tight time frame—Graham Murphy, CEO of the Pemberton-based construction company, says using a subtrade to do the work would have been the surest solution. Instead, he invoked the partnership his business developed with the Lil’wat Nation, 10 kilometres east of Pemberton, aimed at giving its members training, mentorship and employment in the construction industry.

About 90 percent of the Lil’wat crew of 26 hadn’t worked on commercial concrete until the gondola project, Murphy estimates. “Right now they’re exceeding expectations,” he says, noting that without the agreement they wouldn’t have had this opportunity.

The collaboration, which won a BC Economic Development Award this past summer, was formalized in 2014, after Murphy Construction responded to Lil’wat’s request for proposals. The Nation of about 1,600 members was looking for opportunities to support the community and generate income, says Ernest Armann, its chief operations officer.

“We have shared interests in the community and seeing our families be successful,” he explains. “The partnership with Murphy makes sense.”

It’s also an example of how business and reconciliation go together. The Truth and Reconciliation Committee of Canada recommends that the corporate sector build respectful relationships with Indigenous peoples, provide them with access to training and educational opportunities, and help communities gain long-term, sustainable benefits from projects that boost economic development.

“Reconciliation is fundamentally about different parties coming together to create an understanding of how to work together moving forward,” says Kerry Mehaffey, CEO of Lil’wat Management Services, the company that manages the Nation’s businesses. But, he adds, “Without a strong economic base, one party will always be at a disadvantage when dealing with the other.”

Mehaffey notes that the Nation has two key objectives: improving services to the community and achieving self-government. Both require “funding outside of core funding received from any level of government,” he says.

Like many First Nations, Lil’wat separates business and politics. Its business unit consists of five companies, including forestry and retail divisions. The businesses employ 70 people and bring in $20 million annually in own-source revenue (OSR), money raised in addition to government funding. Over the past few years, the Nation has reinvested nearly $1 million a year in projects it otherwise wouldn’t have had funding for: an immersion-language classroom, updated outdoor space for kids, and language and culture programs.

Under Political Chief Dean Nelson and Cultural Chief Leonard Andrew, the Nation’s 2016-23 strategic plan identifies increasing OSR as a goal. Two years into that plan, the Nation is seeing movement.

In 2016, it opened a $7.3-million post-secondary training institute, the Ts’zil Learning Centre, a satellite campus of Capilano University. Last summer, 35 people who participated in forest fire training at Ts’zil fought blazes in the worst fire season on record in B.C. Other former students joined the team working with Murphy Construction at Whistler Blackcomb and on other projects in the region.

Off reserve, Lil’wat has an 80,000-square-foot mixed residential and commercial development planned for Function Junction in Whistler on 2.15 hectares of land it acquired through the Legacy Land Agreement of the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games. The site has been excavated and cleared; awaiting development permits, the Nation aims to start building in 2019. The project will create about 20 permanent jobs.

Another example of reconciliation through collaboration is Lil’wat’s participation in the Pemberton and District Chamber of Commerce. Graham Turner, the Nation’s current representative at the board table, is serving his second term as president.

In 2017, Turner and the Chamber proposed an Economic Development Collaborative to unite representatives from Pemberton-area municipalities and communities, including three First Nations, the Village of Pemberton and Area C of the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District, and take a united approach to developing the local economy.

The collaborative’s first project was an online portal of regional statistics such as population, employment, education, housing and income. Turner says it will help businesses analyze the workforce and employment trends, establish a baseline for the collaborative to measure economic growth, and support organizations when applying for grants.

“We are still a little one-stoplight town, but we’re trying to grow,” he adds of the region, which has 5,700 residents.

Next, the collaborative hopes to secure funding for a regional economic development plan that would identify overall priorities, key projects and stakeholders, and ultimately boost business revenue.

But money isn’t the only consideration for Lil’wat. “We want value and partnerships,” Armann says. “Good relationships help lead to reconciliation.”