Sometimes Chief Jackie Thomas of the Saik’uz First Nation can’t help but feel that her people are not well understood by the neighbouring community of Vanderhoof.
As the leader of the Saik’uz she admits that things have come a long way from the relationships of the past, but she is quick to add that there is still a lot of work to be done.
“We are an important part of the overall community and I honestly don’t think most people in Vanderhoof are all that interested. It’s a matter of ‘out of sight, out of mind’,” observed Thomas .
But Thomas is intent to ensure that things start to change.
In March, the Saik’uz First Nation entered into an agreement with the municipality of Vanderhoof entitled “Protocol on Cooperation and Communications”; an agreement that set up a partnership steering committee to meet quarterly and discuss mutual areas of concern affecting both Vanderhoof and the Saik’uz.
The agreement also committed to developing a shared vision celebrating diversity and a commitment to the development of healthy communities. It called for the establishment of strong government-to- government relations to share information, improve communications and promote joint initiatives.
“We signed the agreement, but that’s pretty much been it. Until there is actually some action coming from it, it’s all just words on paper,” said Thomas.
“Right now, we are welcomed into Vanderhoof to come and support their businesses, but they don’t want to buy from us very much.”
Still, Thomas admits that change, although slow in coming, is starting to occur.
“There are some industries in the region who are coming around and want to work with us, and that’s a good thing. We try to negotiate partnerships with those industries because we know our future depends on those things happening,” she said.
That’s not to say that the First Nation is relying solely on businesses off the reserve to sustain their economy.
The Saik’uz operate their own logging company, Tin Toh Forest Products Ltd., and a catering business, SNF catering.
They also manage their own fisheries and, through their Natural Resources Department, they are engaged with the proponents of industrial projects in its traditional territory including: Pacific Northern Gas, TransCanada, Innergex Renewable Energy, and New Gold.
“When I came back home 30 years ago, there was 95 per cent unemployment. There were all of 10 cars on the reserve, and we had no way of even getting into town,” recalled Thomas. “We’ve come a long way from there, but we still have a lot of work to do. We can do that work in cooperation with Vanderhoof, or we can do it alone…but we will do it.”
The Saik’uz band office is a hive of activity these days, a reflection of the hard work underway at the First Nation.
In fact, the offices and training rooms as well as the catering business all run out of a building that was constructed in 2003 to be an on-reserve school. It operated for only one year before it was forced to close, according to Thomas.
“If we want to run our own school, we get 60 per cent of the funding that the public school system gets in Vanderhoof. Explain that to me,” observed Thomas.
“I wish we could run our own school right here, but it’s impossible. After a hundred and fifty years of colonization and the residential school system robbing us of our culture we’re at a point where we could provide our children with an education here. We could emphasize our language and culture and start to regain what was taken from us. But we’re prevented from doing it because they won’t fund us at the same level as the town schools. If the public schools in town were asked to make due with that level of funding, they couldn’t do it either.”
Instead, Jason Alexis, the band’s education coordinator, works closely with School District 91 and maintains a direct liaison with local schools to help them understand and implement cultural training.
And the building that was once the school now serves another purpose, acting as a site for a plethora of other training programs for the Saik’uz people.
“We deliver programs such as food safe certification, office worker training, bear safe training, class 4 driver training, and we support the post secondary efforts of the Saik’uz students attending UNBC, CNC as well as those who are taking college credit courses on the reserve,” explained Alexis.
The reserve is also responding to the phenomenon of increasing wild fires in the Province.
“We are involved in training fire fighters to help in combating wild fires and are training our people so they have their fire crew tickets (the certification needed to fight forest fires). But we’ve also gone beyond the basic “S’ series of training to advanced training so our students can become crew chiefs in fire fighting efforts.”
Alexis also acts as a liaison with New Gold, Canfor, and Nechako lumber.
“It’s slowly starting to make a difference,” he said.
The Saik’uz administration has also provided training in a plethora of other areas including certification for Early Childhood Education,, working to fill the shortage of child care workers in the province.
“We’re doing all these things, but when people in Vanderhoof think of us, I sometimes wonder if they have any idea what we’re doing up here…or if they care,” said Thomas.
“That really needs to change.”