By entering the tourism sector, the Xeni Gwet’in First Nation takes charge of its future

The Xeni Gwet'in First Nation, which won a landmark court case in 2014, will soon open a guest lodge on its traditional lands.

Chief Jimmy Lulua

Credit: Kanative. Jimmy Lulua, chief of the Xeni Gwet’in First Nation, in the Nemiah Valley

The Xeni Gwet’in, who won a landmark court case in 2014, will soon open a guest lodge on their traditional lands

Jimmy Lulua, chief of the Xeni Gwet’in First Nations Government, will soon celebrate another milestone with his community. In June, the small nation opens Nemiah Valley Lodge, a guest ranch that marks its formal entry into the tourism sector in its remote Chilcotin territory.

“I really feel that Nemiah Valley Lodge is going to help boost the morale of our people,” says 37-year-old Chief Lulua, who was first elected in 2018. “I view it as an opportunity to test the waters and see if we’re ready to take on more.”

A History of Resistance

The Xeni Gwet’in are one of six nations that belong to the Tsilhqot’in National Government (TNG). Their 13-square-kilometre reserve is in the Nemiah Valley, a broad glacier-scoured U-shape of conifers and aspen-dappled meadows flanked by mountains peaking at some 3,000 metres near Chilko Lake. It wasn’t until the 1970s that a new bridge over the Taseko River linked the valley by road to Highway 20, west of Williams Lake. Telephone lines arrived only in 2006. Today, roughly half the nation’s 450 members live on reserve.

In 2014, this part of B.C. got the country’s attention after the Supreme Court of Canada gave the Tsilhqot’in title to 1,900 square kilometres of territory. The ruling, known as the Tsilhqot’in Decision, also confirmed their right to hunt, fish and forage on another 2,400 square kilometres.

The landmark decision was the culmination of more than 150 years of resistance dating back to 1864, when a group of Tsilhqot’in killed workers building politician and developer Alfred Waddington’s ill-fated wagon road from the coast. (See sidebar.)

The 2014 ruling went further than any previous Canadian court case in recognizing that a First Nation has legal title to land it used before Europeans arrived. But the Tsilhqot’in victory came at great cost: 25 years of struggle, and many nights in Vancouver hotel rooms for Xeni Gwet’in leaders and elders called to testify during a 339-day trial with a price tag of roughly $40 million.

Eight years later, the hard work continues, Chief Lulua says. For procedural simplicity the case focused on Xeni Gwet’in territory because there were no overlapping land claims with other nations, Lulua explains. “We’re the caretakers,” he says.

Now the Xeni Gwet’in are charting their future, and it’s complicated. The Tsilhqot’in decision signalled a new relationship between a First Nation and the provincial and federal governments, but it lacked important details, like what happens with existing tenures on what used to be Crown land.

“Another challenge is that the federal and provincial governments have not developed the statutory tools to adequately recognize the Tsilhqot’in Nation as a legal entity, which complicates entering into any agreements in relation to the title area,” says Dalton Baptiste, administrator for the Xeni Gwet’in.

TNG is now developing new forms of planning and governance “rooted in Tsilhqot’in values,” Chief Lulua says. But he admits that capacity and resources are a big challenge. So far, with the B.C. government, his nation has issued 21 permits for tourism operators in the title area. The Xeni Gwet’in have also signed five agreements with ranchers to allow continued grazing on title lands.

Given those legal and administrative complexities, opening a band-owned tourism property is a big win. Three years ago, the Xeni Gwet’in bought Elkin Creek Guest Ranch from its longtime owners before taking on major renovations and rebranding it Nemiah Valley Lodge. For improvements, the nation got a $974,000 grant from the Province’s Community Economic Recovery Infrastructure Program in 2021.

Kathryn Nair, who worked four seasons at Elkin Creek, is staying on as general manager. “I’m looking forward to helping put Nemiah Valley Lodge on the map and being part of a unique opportunity to share the Xeni Gwet’in culture and ways of life with our guests,” Nair says.

June’s grand opening will be the end of one long road and the start of another for the Xeni Gwet’in. The resort, near Vedan Lake at the head of the Nemiah Valley, will employ nine band members.

The past two years have been tough, Lulua says. The pandemic disrupted the traditions of feasting and gathering, and further isolated a community that is already geographically remote. Lulua expects that the recent announcement about the discovery of 93 potential human burials at the onetime St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School in Williams Lake, which closed in 1981, will reopen old wounds.

“A lot of our people don’t know what mental wellness is and feels like,” says Lulua, whose work before becoming chief focused on youth health and wellness.

That’s why for him, Nemiah Valley Lodge is as much about healing as it is about jobs and revenue for his people. “We’re the first to earn rights and title to our territory, and there will be others,” Lulua says. “This is a sacred path we’re walking.”

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