OLD MASSETT, British Columbia - Following years of population decline, the northern tip of the Queen Charlotte Islands (Haida Gwaii) will experience growth later this summer, led by the return of status Indians.
A new sub-division to be added in Old Massett, British Columbia will construct 293 homes during the next decade with about 1,000 Haida returning to their ancestral home. On this parcel of land covering 367 acres, about half of which is to be developed, the first 20 families plan on moving in by the end of July in a project that's been a decade in the works.
This influx becomes significant towards the revitalization of both the area's economy and the re-claiming of the local Native culture. The sub-division, named "tlaga gaw tlass" or "new town," will alter the ratio of 5,000 registered Haidas from 40 percent presently living on the Charlottes to 60 percent once the homes are completed. (The Skidegate reservation located 60 miles south of Old Massett has about 800.)
"The challenge is getting ready (for them) when we've had 75 - 80 percent unemployment back here," said Chief Ron Brown Jr. in his fourth year governing Old Massett. "About one-third of our membership lives in Prince Rupert (a six-hour ferry ride away) and many of them were shoreworkers who were working as of last year."
Besides doubling the reserve's size, in total the migration will add a third to the population of the entire area when factoring in the non-Native village of Masset, also with about 1,000. The construction and the associated trades required for the homes is a welcome boost for a region hard hit by cutbacks to three significant sectors.
During a span in the late 1990s, provincial and federal restrictions crippled the fishing and the forestry industries while the Canadian Forces base severely curtailed its activities in Masset, located less than a mile from the reservation. The loss of those jobs and the spin-off factor resulted in the village dropping from 1,500 to its present 1,000. But those previous numbers show the Greater Masset area can handle the proposed increase of population so there shouldn't be any concern, according to Old Massett's administrator Peter Lantin.
"With the people coming back, there's going to be a revival in the economy except this time Old Massett will play a huge part in it," Lantin said.
What's making this expansion feasible is the cooperation between the reservation and the village. As Old Massett had nowhere else to grow because it's surrounded by water on three sides, "tlaga gaw tlass" will be located across the canal and in the process, the Native housing areas will circle Masset.
In order to facilitate this growth, both the band and the village are creating their municipal type services agreement (MTSA) to benefit the entire region. The reservation kicked in $800,000 for Masset's water treatment plant while both parties agreed the new waste water facility will be built in Old Massett. The contracts, likely to be on a pro-rata basis, are in its eighth draft for the potable water and fifth draft for the waste water.
Cleaner water will also benefit the local fishing economy. Because of numerous federal regulations directed towards Canada's West Coast, one of the few harvests allowed is shellfish but as they live near shore, that stock has been affected by the human waste being dumped directly into the ocean.
Particularly excited about these service agreements is the economic development officer for Old Massett, John Disney. In addition to the housing enlargement, there are plans to create a $40 million (Cdn.) project featuring a museum on the Haida, a longhouse and a hospital and Disney states both communities have joined efforts to improve their future.
"This way nobody has any excess power and this makes it work for all three communities without control problems," he said about how relatively easy it was to facilitate this arrangement.
Disney unquestionably believes this multi-million dollar project with three cultural buildings encompassing 40,000 square feet will be the key to long-term sustainability for the reservation, and likely the region. To be built on a 117-acre lot known as Parcel "C" lands, its working name is "kluu laanas" or "canoe village."
This tract of the land is the undeveloped property separating Old Massett and Masset, although within the village's boundaries. This project too was more than 10 years in waiting and back then, Masset offered the property to the reserve.
Only recently did Old Massett re-approach the village about getting this land transferred. When Lantin discussed the plans with the citizens of Masset at public hearings, he received almost unanimous support.
"Why would they say 'no?' It would permit the growth of their community and ours," Lantin said.
Lantin's counterpart in the village, Trevor Jarvis, Masset's chief administrative officer, said the decision to hand over the land wasn't difficult.
"They presented the vision of the property and while there were a lot of questions, there was a lot of support without negative feelings," said Jarvis. He pointed out that while the land was within Masset's boundaries, it was still Crown property, so the village didn't lose anything.
Renowned globally for their artwork and totem poles, tourists are already aware of the Haida and the Queen Charlottes. The problem is there aren't many establishments in the Masset area to accommodate their needs, including up-scale hotels and restaurants. "Kluu laanas" will offer such facilities in addition to a carver's workshop where artists will be on public display.
"The reason tourists aren't coming is that there's no place for them to eat or sleep. 'We'll provide the people, you provide the package,' tour guides have said," Disney cited about the few amenities in the northern Charlottes.
Old Massett is able to lead the way towards this economic revival because it's funded differently than the village. Recent additional funding from Ottawa has permitted reservations to plan for larger goals while Masset, which is propped up by the province, has to keep its objectives more modest because of fiscal restraints. Yet, both communities have recognized a strength-in-numbers philosophy.
"We're looking at things more regionally and be able to provide a unified front when dealing with federal and provincial agencies," Jarvis noted.
This relative harmony between communities has resulted in members of Old Massett's staff being requested to attend conferences about Native/non-Native partnership building. These invitations have come as a surprise to Lantin because it was economics, not race relations, at the root of these transactions.
"We're not (trying to) blaze a trail and we wanted to do this. But most First Nations I've talked with say relationships aren't good with municipalities," said Lantin.
Chief Brown too agrees with this pragmatic approach with the neighboring village.
"Most of us were taught to forget the old history (of animosity). Now the other communities are hitting rock bottom and working together we can climb back up."