A First Nation without a home has designs on Island property

He remembers the baseball.

Chief John Smith thinks back to life in the tiny village of Kalagwees on Turnour Island and, for some reason, the baseball games come to mind first.

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Everyone played, he says. No matter their age, no matter their abilities.

Nobody was excluded.

The village elders umpired the contests, calling out balls and strikes, announcing foul tips in Kwak’wala.

In that way, Smith and the other Tlowitsis children picked up their language without even knowing it.

There is nowhere for that to happen now, he says.

The people of the Tlowitsis First Nation began leaving Kalagwees in the 1960s after governments closed the school and cancelled hospital boat visits to the remote village, about 45 kilometres east of Port McNeill.

Today, the nation’s 420 registered members are scattered from Alert Bay to Campbell River to Victoria, Vancouver and farther afield.

For more than 50 years, they have been a nation without a home, their administration office relegated to a lot leased on the Homalco First Nation reserve in Campbell River.

Now Chief Smith, 65, and his brother, Thomas, a councillor, hope to change that by establishing a new community for the Tlowitsis people.

It’s a plan that has sparked controversy and, in some cases, racism, after details of the plan became public in March.

That’s when the First Nation revealed that it had signed an agreement with the real-estate arm of TimberWest Forest Corp. last year to purchase 630 acres of private forest land south of Campbell River.

The plan calls for the Tlowitsis nation to pay $3.5 million for the property — using revenue from its forestry operations — and then transfer the land to the Crown. The deal hinges on the federal government agreeing to designate the tract as an addition to existing Tlowitsis reserves.

The First Nation already has 460 acres at 11 isolated locations north of Johnstone Strait, but none is big enough or near enough to services to re-establish a modern community, the band says.

On Turnour Island, one empty house is all that remains of the traditional village.

“Even if they wanted us to go back to our old village, they’d have to re-jig it for fire protection, for water, sewer,” said John Smith.

“The cost would be too prohibitive for us to do anything out there,” added his brother, Thomas, 58. “There’s no employment up there. There’s no hydro.”

He said the Tlowitsis chose the TimberWest property on York Road because of its proximity to schools, health care and employment opportunities, as well as the potential to use the property for future economic development.

The nation envisions building 75 homes for as many as 150 people over the next 30 years, as well as an administration office, day school, council hall and recreation area.

The long-term plan calls for the development of only two to three per cent of the entire property, which includes wetlands and a Douglas fir forest, Chief Smith said.

“Once it happens, they won’t even see us, because look at the size of this place,” he said on a recent tour of the property with a reporter and photographer.

“It’s the size of downtown Vancouver.”

The plans, however, caught people by surprise and, in some cases, triggered an angry backlash. Real-estate signs and the road leading to the York Road property were spray-painted with the words “No Rez.”

Area residents packed a committee meeting of the Strathcona Regional District to voice concerns about the impact of a new reserve on their “quiet rural community.” They raised questions about everything from increased traffic and loss of tax revenue to the impact on property values and local infrastructure such as water, sewer and emergency services.

Thomas Smith said the Tlowitsis expected resistance, but were taken aback by the level and tenor of the opposition.

“The older people and the young ones felt it the most,” he said.

John Smith said some of the younger people questioned whether they even wanted to live amidst such hostility.

“I didn’t like that part,” he said.

Politicians on the district board have condemned those who spray-painted the signs.

“I think it’s the most disgraceful thing that could have happened,” district board chairman John MacDonald said in an interview.

“I’m so disappointed anybody could even be that way.”

He said the district is taking a “wait and see” approach to the Tlowitsis proposal. The First Nation wants a letter from the district indicating that it has no grave concerns, but the board decided it needed more information before taking a stance.

Brenda Leigh, who represents area residents on the regional district board, said officials hope to arrange a public meeting at which the First Nation can share more details.

She said the negative tone was struck early in the process and likely stemmed from uncertainty and a lack of information.

“That’s what’s caused some fear, and understandably,” she said. “Everything has calmed down, actually. … When you first hear something is changing in your neighborhood, or is potentially going to change, there can be a reaction if you don’t know what it’s about.”

Now, she said, people are reserving their opinions until they get more information.

Evan Peterson, a community planner from Victoria who has been working with the Tlowitsis, said the First Nation is seeking to build a model community on reserve.

“To put it plainly, they’re not messing around; they’re trying to do the best thing they can,” he said.

Formal planning has yet to begin, but Peterson said residents want an affordable, environmentally friendly housing development with a small footprint.

“The Tlowitsis nation are doing something that I would call special here,” he said.

In the process, Tlowitsis leaders hope to create a place where young people can connect with their language and culture. Thomas Smith said younger members know they’re Tlowitsis, but they don’t always know what that means.

“They don’t make the absolute connection,” he said. “The language is missing, the oral culture and history that we have is not being transferred down the line. It’s hard to train or help people understand it when they’re all over the place.”

The new community will be a place where people can return “to learn about who they are,” he said.

Chief John Smith, who moved to Vancouver from Turnour Island when he was 10, said Tlowitsis elders have already come up with a name for the new community — Nenakwas — a place to come home to.

“When they hear that, people say: ‘God, it would be nice to have a home,’ ” he said. “Because there’s nothing like being homeless in your own country.”

lkines@timescolonist.com

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