In 2006, when the Haisla First Nation signed a $50 million agreement with oil and gas consortium Kitimat LNG to build a liquid natural gas plant on one of its reserves, it sent a message to industry: Kitimat was open for business, and the Haisla were willing business partners.
Other agreements followed. The Haisla owns a 50% stake in BC LNG and recently concluded an agreement with the B.C. government that gives the Haisla control over Crown land in Douglas Channel, which could be used for a third LNG plant.
The band also signed a legacy agreement with Rio Tinto Alcan that provides the Haisla with procurement, employment and training opportunities and is working to conclude a new forest and range agreement with the B.C. government.
Not bad for a First Nation that has been stalled at stage four in a six-stage treaty negotiation process since 1994.
The Haisla band is among a handful of B.C. First Nations that have been blazing a path to self-determination – not through treaty negotiations, but through business negotiations and economic development.
"We're trying to find ways to help ourselves so we're not going to governments saying, 'We have health issues; we have welfare issues,'" said Ellis Ross, chief councillor for the Haisla Nation. "We're just saying, 'Look, make us partners.' And the results of whatever business initiative we can get into, we can use that to help our own people on the problems we have."
Ross was born and raised on reserve in Kitimat, where his family made a living from fishing and forestry, and he maintains that connection to this day.
"I still go out on the channel as much as I can to harvest fish," said the 47-year-old father of two and grandfather. "I still go seal hunting, I still go deer hunting, I still go collecting shellfish."
After graduating high school, Ross took a one-year college achievement program for aboriginal people, but admits he didn't apply himself.
He spent a few years doing survey work for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, then went into business with his brother doing hand logging and salvage log beachcombing. He also ran a charter boat.
His first introduction to politics was in 2001, when he was asked to head a committee tasked with rehabilitating a community recreation centre that had fallen into neglect. It was an apt choice, given Ross' lifelong love of sports. He spent 10 years coaching basketball, while his two daughters were growing up, and still plays basketball and soccer.
"I just thought I should return something to my community, because basketball actually kept me – for a large part of my life – away from the drugs and alcohol," Ross said. "It built on the discipline my dad had built into me. I was raised to be self-sufficient. I was raised not to expect handouts."
Through his committee work, Ross developed a knack for understanding issues, building consensus and getting things done. In 2003, he was elected to band council, spent two years boning up on aboriginal rights case law and was elected chief in 2011.
After it struck its first joint venture, the band decided it needed to separate business from politics and created the Haisla Business Operations. As chief, Ross oversees the organization. He also chairs the Aboriginal Business and Investment Council.
Ross' people saw immediate benefits with the first partnership agreement it signed on the Kitimat LNG project. The Haisla received $50 million for giving the consortium rights to use one of its unoccupied reserves to build an LNG plant, and will also receive rent and taxes.
From that payment, the Haisla disbursed $15 million to roughly 1,700 band members, and put the rest in a long-term investment account. Ross said the dividend payment to Haisla band members was good for Kitimat and Terrace.
"Local business saw the biggest impact out of that. We are big consumers. I have heard that TVs were sold out in Terrace."
Ross said the agreements his people have struck with industry will mean jobs for the Haisla, but added that "they're not going to be handed on a silver platter."
To get good jobs, his people will need to develop skills. To address the skills gap among his people, the Haisla partnered with Rio Tinto Alcan to buy Kitimat Valley Institute, a private post-secondary school which now provides training for workers in the oil, gas and power industries.
Businesses that work with First Nations may find they place a heavier emphasis on environmental and cultural issues, said Jonathan Whitworth, CEO of Seaspan, which is part of a joint venture with the Haisla called HaiSea to provide escort vessels, docking tugs and marine workers needed by the LNG industry.
"What Ellis is able to do is balance tradition with business and growth," Whitworth said.
"If you ask me where other First Nation bands have problems, they either focus too much on business and forget their history, or they focus on traditions, and they forget potential business and growth. Ellis' forte is to be able to do both."
Under the current system, industries wanting government approval for mines, pipelines and other industrial projects have to go through environmental reviews and permitting, and as part of the review process, governments are obliged to consult with First Nations that might be impacted by the project.
But the consultation usually comes toward the end of the review process, which Ross said is backwards.
He urges industry to work with First Nations to address their concerns up front. In the case of Kitimat LNG, the Haisla were not a third party to be consulted, but a partner in an application for an environmental review.
"Essentially what happens is that we go together and our input is in your application already," Ross said. "In the KLNG project, we were fully consulted and accommodated during the environmental assessment.
"If there is one piece of advice I could give to the business community, it's that approach [are] everything, first impressions is everything. And if you don't listen to what a First Nation community is telling, then your project is probably not going to go anywhere."
It is estimated that the LNG industry will contribute more than $100 billion in GDP – $40 billion in Kitimat alone.
But Ross doesn't measure his band's success with those kinds of numbers. He measures it by the stories he hears now about his people doing what ordinary British Columbians take for granted: getting loans to buy cars and mortgages to buy homes.
"What fills me with pride is guys talking about their work, talking about their bosses, talking about how many days in a row they worked, the new vehicle they're going to buy, or how they're waiting for financing to be approved, how they're getting a mortgage," Ross said.
"It may seem pretty trivial to the average B.C.er or Canadian, but for a First Nations person to be talking about this with pride, that's what it all boils down to." •