A True Story of Economic Reconciliation
Photo – Dave Formosa, Mayor of Powell River, with Qwastånayå (L. Maynard Harry), former Chief Councillor of the Sliammon First Nation (courtesy of the City of Powell River)
“The problems of our Aboriginal neighbours are daunting and complex. Our role in their creation and the benefit derived, direct or indirect, makes even talking about it with honesty near impossible. We feel guilt. We are insecure. We want to be politically and culturally correct but are not familiar enough to act with confidence. We overcomplicate by trying to figure out the legal landscape or oversimplify by seeing our Aboriginal neighbours as a sad statistic. We encounter racism amongst personal friends and within our electorate and find our leadership challenged. We look for the business case in order to sell the idea of investing into the relationship with our aboriginal neighbours. That is a good starting point. Because the fact is that the well-being of Aboriginal communities is inextricably linked to ours.”
— Powell River Mayor Stewart Alsgard, Federation of Canadian Municipalities Convention, Victoria, February 10, 2010
It can be intimidating for mainstream business to engage in partnerships with our First Nations communities. How do you approach each other? How do you overcome perceived stereotypes? How do you understand each other so you can build a future that increases everyone’s prosperity?
Building successful relationships is the cornerstone of our work at ABM, and we have worked hard to facilitate partnerships between our Indigenous and non-Indigenous people and businesses in our network.
We’re inspired by a story that’s become a case study for how to create harmony from conflict. It provides valuable insight into how to create long-lasting, mutually beneficial relationships.
In May 2003 the Corporation of the District of Powell River (now the City of Powell River) made history with the signing of the Community Accord with the Sliammon First Nation (now the Tla’amin Nation). It marked a new era in relations between the municipality and the Coast Salish nation upon whose traditional territory Powell River was founded.
It was an especially emotional moment given that just a year before, the City had become involved in a heated dispute with Sliammon over construction of a sea walk. Several significant cultural sites, including petroglyphs and shell middens, were mistakenly disturbed, destroyed or buried when construction began.
Qwastånayå (L. Maynard Harry), former Chief Councillor of the Sliammon First Nation, remembers how angry his community felt. “That project started out on the wrong foot. No meaningful consultation took place.”
Fallout from the lack of consultation and the destruction of cultural artifacts stirred up ugly emotions in both communities. “There was racism on both sides,” says Maynard. “We felt we were being attacked. Internally, a group of us defending Sliammon were told in no uncertain terms that our comments were having a negative affect on the kids in the school system. As a councillor at the time, it changed my perception.”
Maynard and his community decided somebody had to bring the conflict to an end. “So instead of making the project impossible, we decided to take a proactive approach and participate in building the sea walk, while protecting our interests and most importantly, the cultural heritage resources of the area.”
Current Powell River Mayor Dave Formosa, then involved in the Powell River Regional Economic Development Society (PRREDS), worked with Maynard and then-Mayor Stewart Alsgard to broker reconciliation.
With negotiations begun, Dave remembers the day Mayor Aslgard decided to hand over a $1.6 million contract to the Sliammon Development Corporation to continue construction on the sea walk. “Normally a contract like this has to go through a bidding process. Stewart asked, ‘am I going to regret this?’ Turns out he didn’t. Phase 2 got built and built well, and that was the real beginning of the City’s relationship with the Tla’amin people, and from there the Community Accord was created.”
“It took over a dozen meetings to resolve that ugly issue, but in the end, it brought us together,” says Maynard. “In June 2018, the principles of the 2003 Accord were reaffirmed in a signing ceremony between the Tla’amin Nation and the City of Powell River. Stewart and I acted as co-emcees.”
Dave and Maynard are also proud of another huge leap of faith that the City undertook. Says Maynard: “it took us 20 years to negotiate our treaty settlement. Land selection was a big component of our treaty negotiations and we selected lands within City of Powell River boundaries. The City stepped back and said, ‘go for it, we support you.’ You will not see that in too many places in Canada. For reconciliation to be successful, leadership in every municipality, city and township must think a different way.”
Remembers Dave: “I expected a huge backlash and we didn’t get it, and I think that’s because our citizens no longer feel scared because of our years of working together with the Tla’amin people.”
The Tla’amin Nation now meets and partners with the City of Powell River on a regular basis, working on projects like emergency service provision, land development and city transit to and from the Tla’amin Nation community. “We’ve had our differences,” says Dave, “but we’ve used the Accord to work through them.”
Dave has some great advice for municipalities and businesses when it comes to embracing their First Nations neighbours. “You are always better off to build a positive relationship, especially if you don’t have a treaty in place. Take a step back and try to understand their history and their culture. And once you spend that time to understand and get to know each other, you can talk about things you can do to help them better their lives, and things they can do to help you better your life. Our First Nations neighbours employ people, they’re doing economic development, and where are they spending their money? In your community, in your stores, they hire your people. When the city wants to do something it sure helps when you have your First Nations neighbours writing letters of support and standing with you. What a difference! What a powerhouse!”
Maynard remembers what was critical in building relationships was changing the misperceptions of both sides. “I think fear and suspicion were very high. People protect their money, their land, their opportunity and they see no reason to share. And how do you get over that obstacle? The way forward must include education and a willingness to learn, on both sides. Then-Mayor Alsgard did jeopardize his chances of re-election by supporting our concerns. He wrote us a cheque for us to finish the sea walk. We employed approximately 30 people on this project, and it was quite amazing.
“Media coverage of our work together was critically important. Communities need to see its leadership working with other leaders. Simply inviting Mayors and Chiefs to meetings can work but bringing this to a more personal level will work much more effectively. Inviting outside leaders to share a feast and sit at your head table is a great start. Too many First Nation communities are not used to seeing white people come in and have dinner with them, and Stewart Alsgard stepped into that role.”
Both communities experienced a pivotal moment of reconciliation and respect when Elder Norman Gallagher passed away in 2007. Says Maynard: “we held a wake and Stewart attended to pay his respects. Not only did he attend, but his entire council attended. What I remember is then-Mayor Alsgard paying his respect to Norm by placing his Chain of Office around Norm’s photograph which was sitting on top of his casket. He left it there for at least an hour while chatting with our Elders. This from a man not five years earlier who was not approachable or even likeable. There he was walking around our ‘big house’ chatting, shaking hands and even hugging people. Today, 15 years later, he continues to get community invites standing ovations from our Elders, which is very cool.
“I think that it’s important for communities, cities and municipalities to reconcile their history with their First Nations neighbours. And I think it’s equally vital for businesses as well. Catalyst Paper, the local pulp mill, has also become involved with this relationship building process – a tripartite agreement was signed between Catalyst, the City of Powell River and the Tla’amin Nation in 2004, and we’ve also signed a partnership agreement with Weyerhaeuser and the Regional District (now the qathet Regional District).”
The City of Powell River and all who live there now enjoy a win-win-win when it comes to economic development and shared prosperity. Concludes Maynard: “this relationship has gone levels above anywhere else – even really advanced First Nations in Canada don’t have relationships like what’s been demonstrated here. In the end it’s about demonstration and action over words and rhetoric. The City of Powell River has gone through this exercise with us.”
The Vision Statement for Powell River’s Official Community Plan of the City says it best: “Powell River is a coastal city with a proud heritage, diverse local economy and a sustainable future – environmentally, socially and economically … ‘The Pearl on the Sunshine Coast’, Powell River continues to work cooperatively with the Regional District and our Tla’amin Nation neighbours to foster a respectful community, inclusive for all.”