First Movers: How Indigenous people in B.C. exercise their economic and political power will have massive implications

From Kitimat to Vancouver, B.C. First Nations are making strides to build capacity for their communities and become key players in the provincial economy.

Credit: Paul Joseph

Haisla Nation Chief Councillor Crystal Smith played a key role in negotiating a deal with LNG Canada

From Kitimat to Vancouver, B.C. First Nations are making strides to build capacity for their communities and become key players in the provincial economy

Editor’s note: This story, the cover feature from our February issue, explores how Indigenous people in B.C. are finding their way to prosperity through economic reconciliation. At the time of publication, writer Steven Threndyle had been following the four-year-long Wet’suwet’en blockade of the proposed Coastal GasLink pipeline route through the nation’s unceded territory and the split between the elected council and hereditary chiefs. “The provincial government’s UNDRIP legislation and RCMP arrests emboldened protesters and ratcheted up the situation since the story was published,” Threndyle says. “Inevitably, the Wet’suwet’en chiefs will have to get together to figure things out, hopefully in consultation with other First Nations along the pipeline route.”

Crystal Smith left no doubt where she stood. In late 2018, soon after the Haisla Nation backed the LNG Canada/Coastal GasLink energy megaproject based in her hometown of Kitimat, the charismatic chief councillor wrote an open letter to critics suspicious of its social and environmental impacts.

Besides an education and employment department for Haisla seeking work, funding from the community benefit agreement between the nation and the $40-billion project’s proponents had already financed a traditional language program, Smith noted. “If it weren’t for the open communication and the continued offer of respect from LNG Canada and Coastal GasLink as they engaged with Haisla, we would not have those services in place.”

The liquefied natural gas export facility and its associated pipeline will give the Haisla a big financial boost. But for Smith, the real value lies elsewhere. “More than the jobs and the money, it’s been our participation in the process from the very beginning that’s been most important,” she tells BCBusiness.

In 2015, the federal Truth and Reconciliation Commission report called for economic reconciliation with Indigenous people “based on a holistic, values-driven approach to attaining community economic prosperity.” First Nations’ ability to negotiate as equal partners with government and industry hinges on capacity-building—having the tools to advance their rights and strengthen self-determination. Success in business is far from guaranteed, but they’re regaining the power to build a prosperous future for themselves.

The Haisla aren’t the only B.C. First Nation playing host to a multibillion-dollar venture. Last December in Vancouver, the 850-plus members of the Squamish Nation voted to proceed with Sekw, the biggest-ever Canadian residential development on Indigenous land. Eleven highrise towers, some as tall as 56 storeys, will occupy an 11-block slice of waterfront property in Kitsilano near the Burrard Bridge.

With its 6,000 units—most of them market rentals—$3-billion Sekw could help tackle the housing crisis while transforming an area dominated by luxury car dealers. And because the project is on reserve land, the Squamish Nation can bypass rent controls and build what it likes without seeking approval from the City of Vancouver. Revenue over the life of Sekw, a partnership with Vancouver-based developer Westbank Corp., could deliver the Squamish a staggering $10 billion in rental income.

“The Squamish Nation is always looking to take advantage of opportunities, and in this case, it’s location, location, location,” says Khelsilem, the young councillor who is the spokesperson for Sekw.

Through MST Development Corp., their enterprise with fellow Coast Salish First Nations the Musqueam and the Tsleil-Waututh, the Squamish also have a hand in Metro Vancouver real estate projects on property administered by Crown corporation Canada Lands Co. For example, MST is working with Westbank to develop the former RCMP headquarters on Heather Street in Vancouver.

As VP development Brennan Cook points out, these undertakings come with a long and costly planning and rezoning process. MST isn’t directly involved with the Kitsilano project, but “there are a lot of positives that can be taken from Sekw,” Cook says. “The Squamish First Nation can move with speed to deliver a tremendous amount of rental product that is not currently being served by the current market due to time and expense.”

A flurry of other recent events highlight the elevated role that Indigenous people will play in shaping the province’s future. Nine days after October’s federal election, Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), addressed the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade. Bellegarde told the crowd that although AFN wants to see the Trans Mountain Expansion Project from Edmonton to Burnaby completed, fighting climate change is a priority, too. “There is only one planet, and we have a responsibility to make sure there’s something for seven generations down the road.”

In November at the International Indigenous Tourism Conference in Kelowna, four B.C. businesses (Spirit Bear Lodge, Lund Resort at Klah Ah Men, St. Eugene Resort and Homalco Wildlife and Cultural Tours, respectively) took home prestigious awards for best-in-class customer service, accommodation, and indoor and outdoor cultural experiences.

Then, on November 28, the B.C. government became the first in Canada to enshrine the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act (UNDRIP) in law. The UNDRIP standard for anyone seeking to develop or use resources from Indigenous land: free, prior and informed consent. “We’ll create new opportunities for Indigenous peoples to be full partners in the B.C. economy,” Premier John Horgan told an AFN assembly in Ottawa a few days later.

The Road to UNDRIP

Before B.C. became the first province to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples last fall, these events helped change the game


Section 35 of the federal Constitution Act confirms “existing Aboriginal or treaty rights” that had not been extinguished by surrender or legislation before that year.


The RCMP arrests First Nations members living on Haida Gwaii and environmentalists for protesting unauthorized logging of Lyell Island. Five years later, the federal government announces the creation of Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve.


The Kamloops Amendment to the Indian Act gives First Nations the power to enact bylaws, assert jurisdiction and collect taxes on their land.


R. v. Sparrow case in the Supreme Court of Canada establishes First Nations fishing rights on the Fraser River by invoking Section 35 of the Constitution Act.


Delgamuukw v. British Columbia leads to a Supreme Court of Canada ruling that defines Aboriginal title. The court uses and accepts oral history of the Gitxsan and
First Nations in the Nass Valley.


Four Host First Nations protocol signed. The Lil’wat, Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh show support for holding the 2010 Winter Olympics on their territory in Vancouver, Squamish and Whistler. Today, nearly all local public events begin with an acknowledgment that they are taking place on the traditional land of the Coast Salish people.


Great Bear Rainforest announced. First Nations on the Central Coast and Haida Gwaii play a key role in preserving 6.4 million hectares of old-growth forest in north-central B.C. from logging. This protected habitat is named for the rare Kermode (spirit) bear.


Prime Minister Stephen Harper formally apologizes in the House of Commons on behalf of the Government of Canada “for the pain and suffering endured by former students of Indian residential schools–and for the damaging effects the schools had on Aboriginal culture, heritage and language.” Harper also announces the formation of an Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission to bear witness to these atrocities.


The Tsilhqot’in Nation wins a historic Supreme Court of Canada decision focusing on Aboriginal land title based on traditional hunting and fishing territory and not just old village sites. The Tsilhqot’in are awarded 1,700 square kilometres of land west of Williams Lake.


The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada report includes the findings of a national panel on residential schools. The federal government acknowledges its role in the “cultural genocide” of Indigenous peoples, and the report’s 94 calls to action include economic reconciliation.


Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologizes to the Tsilhqot’in people for the wrongful conviction and execution of their chiefs during the Chilcotin War of 1864. 


B.C. Indigenous relations expert and hereditary chief Bob Joseph publishes 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act, which becomes a Canadian bestseller.

Sources: Government of Canada, Canadian Encyclopedia, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc, Maclean’s, UBC First Nations and Indigenous Studies, Government of B.C., CBC, Globe and Mail

Kitamaat or Kitimat?

This is what consultation between the Canadian government and B.C. First Nations looked like back in 1952. Long before UNDRIP‘s informed consent, the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs relocated a Haisla village to make way for the Alcan aluminum smelter—Canada’s largest industrial project to date.

Kitamaat Mission (later renamed Kitamaat Village), which included a residential school, was moved 10 kilometres south of what became a new “model city” for construction workers and operations personnel. Its name: Kitimat, the slightly different spelling chosen to reduce confusion between the two communities. Today, a signpost recognizes that the town sits on the traditional territory of the Haisla Nation.

The 700 residents of Kitamaat Village occupy a sliver of land whose most noteworthy feature is a replica of the infamous G’psgolox totem pole that Canada gave to Sweden in 1927 for display in its Museum of Ethnography. (According to one story, the Swedes were told that the Haisla were a “dying race.”) Returned in 2006, the pole is now stored in a local museum. Haisla carvers showed great generosity of spirit by creating a perfect copy for the museum in Stockholm, plus the one that now stands on the Kitamaat reserve.

Despite these indignities, the Haisla have produced two of the province’s most prominent First Nations leaders, Ellis Ross and Crystal Smith. Smith replaced Ross as chief councillor after he was elected BC Liberal MLA for Skeena in 2017. Both played key roles in negotiating First Nations approval for TC Canada’s 670-kilometre Coastal GasLink pipeline and the LNG Canada joint venture, whose partners are Korea Gas Corp., Mitsubishi Corp. of Japan, PetroChina and Malaysia’s Petronas.

Ross and Smith’s motivation for getting involved is simple: to break the cycle of despair, drug abuse, domestic violence and victimhood. “The time for talk about reconciliation is past,” Ross says. “It’s time for First Nations leaders to stop playing the victim card and work with non-Indigenous businesses to provide economic opportunity to their members.” But that doesn’t mean the Haisla are sellouts. More than 25 years ago, they collaborated with the provincial government and international forestry companies to protect the nearby Kitlope Valley from logging.

As eventful as 2019 was, “the process of economic reconciliation—even if it wasn’t called that—was well underway before Prime Minister Trudeau announced the 94 resolutions of the Truth and Reconciliation report,” Ross says. “First Nations in B.C. have signed hundreds of diverse agreements with non-Indigenous businesses in the past decade.”

Ross even suspended treaty negotiations—traditionally viewed with suspicion by many B.C. First Nations—with the provincial and federal governments to concentrate on LNG. “It’s a waste of resources to try and change the Indian Act,” he says. “Working together with LNG Canada to identify problems and offer solutions is far more productive.”

The Haisla, however, weren’t going to be pushed around. “We had to overcome terrible precedents,” Ross recalls. “Companies would get their logging or road-building approvals from provincial ministries and expect us to rubber-stamp them. They would say, We have our approvals; you have to let us work here. That was not right.”

Smith was raised in Kitamaat Village by her grandparents, both of whom attended residential schools. “Our people have been very resilient in keeping our traditional culture while adapting to modern life,” she says. For Smith, LNG Canada offers educational opportunities that can lead to successful careers. “It’s shocking to think that funding for trades education and training is not available from Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada,” she says. “The Indian Act has not allowed us to prosper; we will have to do it on our own.”

Besides labourers, the Haisla will need teachers, health care workers and technical staff to help secure their long-term future. “Capacity-building is about ensuring that we don’t have to outsource everything,” Smith says. “We’ll help fund whatever jobs meet the needs of our community.” In her view, “LNG Canada is economic reconciliation for the Haisla.”

Smith sees the project as a win for all First Nations in B.C. “There’s enormous excitement within our community right now,” she says of the Haisla, 1,000 of whose 1,700 members lived off-reserve as of the 2016 census. “My boyfriend is from another First Nation, and he gets questions all the time about when they can come up and start work.”

Reaching a deal with LNG Canada wasn’t easy. “We had over 80 meetings—and that’s not counting all of the hours spent in between—before arriving at an agreement on preserving important fish habitat,” Smith says. She’s also faced off with environmentalists who protest, with some effectiveness, that LNG is aiding environmental destruction through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. “We recently signed the Northwest Coast First Nations Collaborative Climate Initiative,” Smith notes. “Our message is that increasing exports of Canadian-produced LNG to China will offset carbon emissions from coal-burning power plants.”

Ironically, the Haisla opposed the Northern Gateway project, a failed effort to pipe diluted bitumen from Fort McMurray to Prince Rupert. They’re among 20 First Nations whose elected councils approved the Coastal GasLink pipeline, but that decision has led to conflict among the neighbouring Wet’suwet’en, several of whose hereditary chiefs want the project stopped.

From economics to Indigenomics

As Carol Anne Hilton sees it, the Haisla’s cooperation with LNG Canada and Coastal GasLink is a perfect example of what she calls Indigenomics. Hilton, an MBA-educated business consultant from the Hesquiaht First Nation on Vancouver Island, coined the term as a hashtag in 2015 to tell and celebrate First Nations business stories. Besides teaching community economic development at SFU, she sits on a range of advisory boards specializing in First Nations economic opportunities.

The sky is the limit when it comes to Indigenomics’ potential, Victoria-based Hilton argues. “This is a power moment for our First Nations, a time to replace the past 150 years of colonial domination and design an economic framework based on an Aboriginal world view.”

Hilton believes non-Indigenous businesses can learn a lot from the special relationship that First Nations have traditionally had with the land. For her, Indigenomics is an invitation for both sides to participate in an economy that respects and accepts Indigenous ways of being.

As for growth, Indigenous businesses contribute more than $30 billion a year to Canada’s gross domestic product, according to the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business. The Toronto-based group predicts that this number could swell to $100 billion by 2024.

The relationship between B.C. First Nations and the Crown has been unbalanced for many reasons. Jeff Munroe, who served as Royal Bank of Canada’s Aboriginal market director for B.C. and Yukon from 1994 to 2001, credits Clarence Louie, chief of the Osoyoos Indian Band (OIB) in the South Okanagan, with breaking the pattern of dependency on federal government handouts. “Back in 1991, Chief Louie was the first person to separate business from politics,” says Munroe, who is from the Wahpeton Dakota Nation in Saskatchewan. From vineyards to a golf course to a luxury hotel to a correctional facility, the OIB has seized opportunities wherever they arise.

Now economic development officer for the Kwakiutl Band Council near Port Hardy, Munroe works to find solutions that lie within the framework of economic reconciliation as laid out in the Truth and Reconciliation report. Transport Canada has committed $12 million to build a new airport on unceded Kwakiutl territory. With a terminal that references Indigenous architecture, the project will make every effort to employ Kwakiutl members for construction and operations. “This project truly represents the spirit of reconciliation,” Munroe says.

Today, First Nations rely on two major sources of income. Payments via a variety of federal government agencies regulated by the Indian Act help to finance infrastructure, education and health care. What’s known as own-source revenue often comes from partnerships with the private sector.

If you shop at tony Park Royal in West Vancouver, signs and art remind you that it’s partly on Squamish Nation territory. Other large enterprises on First Nations  reserves include UBC, Vancouver International Airport and the Ravenswood housing development in North Vancouver. Business partnerships of all kinds have greatly expanded over the past four decades, thanks to a concerted effort on all sides—including the federal and provincial governments—to clarify the legal framework for what can and can’t be done on Indigenous land.

While the Haisla have forged a deal with natural gas producers, other B.C. First Nations are trying to shift away from reliance on fossil fuels. Brody Guy is executive director of Coast Funds, a conservation-based investment firm that traces its origins to the 2006 agreement to preserve Great Bear Rainforest on B.C.’s central and northern coast. The Vancouver-headquartered outfit has earmarked $8 million to study how some of the province’s smallest and most remote First Nations communities can participate in the green economy. By 2030, wind, solar, biomass, run-of-river and other carbon-free power generation could help reduce fossil fuel use for those on Haida Gwaii and in the Great Bear Rainforest by 20 percent, Coast Funds estimates.

Guy doesn’t mince words about what capacity means when it comes to empowering First Nations living in those far-flung regions. “Reconciliation between the province and First Nations starts with a recognition of historical and fundamental inequality.”

He cites the provincial Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development and its annual budget in the hundreds of millions of dollars. “That money finances a vast bureaucracy to manage land that has never been ceded by First Nations,” Guy says. “Elected band members voluntarily do the same work as educated professionals in government and industry in order to represent their bands’ best interests.”

Credit: Adam Blasberg

Tahltan Central Government president Chad Norman Day

Standing tall in Tahltan territory 

Less than a week after the provincial government passed its United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples legislation, Chad Norman Day, president of the Tahltan Central Government in northern B.C., published a column in the Canadian Mining Journal. Day, 32, put renegade jade miners in the Cassiar Mountains on notice: thanks to UNDRIP, their damaging extraction methods would no longer be tolerated.

For six years, the Cassiar range in traditional Tahltan territory has been the location for Jade Fever, a popular Discovery Channel Canada reality series about the largely unregulated mining of nephrite, a type of jade. The show has drawn fortune seekers from around the world wanting to bust up and export the green rock to Malaysia for processing, polishing and profit.

According to Day, several of the offending parties have fled the province. “These are small operators, but they can do a lot of damage,” says the UVic law graduate. “And they don’t bring any economic advantage to the province or to our people. They’ll leave, and someone else will have to go and clean it up.”

That doesn’t mean Day and the Tahltan oppose mining, though. Far from it. Active in the B.C. industry, Day sits on the board of the Association for Mineral Exploration. In frequent op-eds for business and specialty publications, he makes the case for First Nations and mining companies working together.

Before contact with Europeans, the Tahltan grew wealthy from the sale of obsidian, a lava-based volcanic rock that can easily be fashioned into weapons. Now they find themselves in the middle of what’s known as the Golden Triangle, their lands being staked and claimed not just by jade hunters but also by gold miners large and small. The upside is an unemployment rate close to zero—”anyone who wants a well-paying job can get one,” says Day, who is serving his third term as president after first being elected in 2014.

Like many B.C. First Nations, the Tahltan have never formally ratified a treaty with the provincial government. Fiercely protective of its vast unceded territory, comprising 11 percent of the province, the nation is governed by rules and principles from the 1910 Declaration of the Tahltan Tribe, which gives it the right to negotiate nation-to-nation with Victoria and the feds.

The Tahltan, 1,000 of whose roughly 3,000 members live in and around their traditional lands, have influenced how some mining companies operate. After the 2014 tailings pond disaster at the Mount Polley copper and gold mine in the Cariboo, Day and his technical mining advisers met with Vancouver-based Imperial Metals Corp., owner of Mount Polley and Red Chris, a copper-gold mine in Tahltan territory. “We were able to make the environmental legislation more robust,” Day says.

With almost full employment and its members holding lucrative mineral exploration jobs, the Tahltan First Nation offers informed advice to other remote Indigenous communities looking to succeed financially and culturally. “Our governance model has both elected officials [a requirement of the Indian Act] and hereditary chiefs,” Day explains. “We have a lot of capacity that other First Nations don’t. When I started, there were four full-time staff, and most of the work was completed by Tahltan consultants in Vancouver.” Today, the nation has 30 employees throughout its territory.

“Our form of governance structure and our experience with the mining industry are areas where I think we can help other First Nations in the province thrive,” Day says.

Remarkably, the Tahltan have more young women than men enrolled in their trades programs. “Last month, we had our first female millwright graduate,” Day notes. But for him, building capacity doesn’t mean hiring only First Nations members. He’s looking at the big picture, recruiting Indigenous and non-Indigenous professionals to mentor younger employees.

Truth-telling through tourism

Kingcome Inlet has always been hard to reach: a two-hour boat ride at a steady 25-knot clip from Port McNeill on northeast Vancouver Island takes you into a deep, mountain-studded fjord that is home to killer whales, dolphins, eagles, and black and grizzly bears. At the head of the inlet, the majestic Silverthrone Glacier rises 1,500 metres above the ocean.

From early July through mid-October, Mike Willie of Sea Wolf Adventures proudly shows international travellers his remote ancestral homeland. Each Sea Wolf tour promises safety, truth and education. Safety is provided by experienced skippers who, like Willie, have been piloting boats through the narrow channels and open sounds of the Broughton Archipelago for their entire lives. Tourists seem most interested in the opportunity to see and learn about grizzlies, but Willie’s tours also teach a sad and shameful lesson: the truth about the forced reloc