SpruceRoots Magazine - September, 1999

Flying to Texas ... for milk!

by Amanda Reid-Stevens

I believe that good things come from good communication. If you read this article in its entirety, you're going to be communicated with so well and thoroughly that, as you near the end of it, you might find yourself rolling your eyeballs, heaving noisy sighs, and accusing me of being preachy. But that's okay.


Something good might come of it.

Recent incidents, such as the debate over a site for the new south-end high school, and whether there should be a north-end and a south-end hospital demonstrate there is a real need for clear and consistent communication - without it we're shooting ourselves in our collective foot.

The most practical body for initiating and keeping the flow of communication open is our leadership. Band councils, village councils, management committees, etc., are entities responsible for seeking, receiving and considering input from the people they represent. When necessary, they should also be responsible for meeting with their counterparts in neighboring communities to relay concerns, discuss common objectives, and look for possible ways to work together. It'd be nice to know, too, that they're trying on our behalf, to reach agreement upon options for dealing with sensitive issues before they have a chance to turn into community mud-slinging contests.

It's easy for me to sit here and come up with all sorts of ideas on how to make the world run better. It's one of the things I do best. Actually, it's one of the things that everybody does best. Try this on for size: Watch how two individuals who interact successfully do just that. Then take the things that make their friendship work and apply them to the Islands community.

There are many people from all over Haida Gwaii, of different ages, backgrounds, and cultures who enjoy one another's company and are friends in the truest sense of the word. How did they become friends? They talk, listen, and are interested in each other. They ask questions to find out more. They trust each other, gossip a bit, and are happy for one another's fortunes. They're sympathetic about misfortunes. They help each other in times of need, and offer advice. Then they have an argument and kiss and make up.

It might be unrealistic to expect that one community can be a friend in all ways to another. Or that members of our various governing bodies would be willing to give each other conciliatory smooches following a spat. Come to think of it, we'd be better off leaving that sort of thing up to other folks.

But our Islands' communities can certainly be allies while, at the same time, maintaining their unique, individual identities. Wouldn't you like to see more instances of our local administrations working together, or offering to help one another out? It'd sure beat the hell out of setting ourselves back 10 years every time we slam the door shut.

It's become far too easy for us to blame everything that happens on someone else, or on other communities, or on government. We're becoming chronic snivelers, who don't take the time to ask enough questions or listen carefully to responses. It's time to call a time-out and take a good, hard look at how we as individuals and communities contribute to some of our problems.

We need to learn how to be happy for our neighbors' successes. We need to cut way back on the all-too-public bitching and moaning. We need to pull up our bootstraps and face changing circumstances with creativity and flexibility. And we need to be innovative and unafraid.

We have a lot of need to's.

The accomplishments of the Greater Masset Development Corporation (GMDC) are a prime example of what can be achieved through communities working together. New Masset and Old Massett deserve sincere congratulations for the economic development being generated since the DND base closure. These communities took a positive approach to a potential problem and have provided an excellent example for others to follow.

As surprising as it may sound, all of us will benefit from the work the GMDC is doing. Take the fact that the military housing is no longer sitting empty. New residents occupy the homes. From time to time, these people will venture out into other communities, do a little sightseeing, check out a few stores, visit some museums, and take part in Fall Fair celebrations. The new residents of Masset, at one time or another and by varying degrees, are going to contribute to the economies of all the Islands' communities.

I can tell I'm on a roll with my communicating. Maybe you should pause here for a cup of coffee or a bathroom break, because what follows is lengthy.
We've now arrived at the beginning of the second half of my better-communications-between-communities effort, wherein I'm going to share some information about the village I live in. I hope it will help other Islands' communities understand why we're doing some of the things we're doing, how it's being done, and why it benefits not only my community but yours.

Over the past ten years, Skidegate's population has nearly doubled. By any standards, this represents exceptional growth within a short time span. Along with the increase in population has come some small-business development and a willingness of the village administration to set aside land to accommodate types of services and facilities rarely found within the boundaries of a reserve, i.e. schools and hospitals.

While community development has been welcomed by most who live in Skidegate, it has at times inspired feelings of anxiety, apprehension, and uncertainty in some quarters of our neighboring community of Queen Charlotte. I think some of these feelings stem from a belief that new businesses in Skidegate present competition to those established in Queen Charlotte. To a certain degree, this is so.

There is also a fear that some existing services and facilities in Queen Charlotte may be relocated to Skidegate. This has already occurred with the move of the elementary school, and may in future happen with the hospital.

But there is a question that needs to be asked: Is business competition, and a six-mile relocation of a facility, necessarily a bad thing? In order to find an answer, we need to do some research and ask more questions... (No need to groan. I've already done the research and am going to ask and answer all the questions. I'm exercising poetic license.)

Why has there been so much growth in Skidegate?
Since the passing of Bill C-3 1, a piece of legislation that enabled some Haida to regain their "Indian" status, Skidegate has welcomed back individuals and whole families who had formerly, by federal law, been disenfranchised. Many of their rights, including those of building and owning homes in the community, had been taken away. Prior to Bill C-3 1, the number of Skidegate residents stood at around 350, with little fluctuation for a number of years. Today, the population is about 800.

How has the growth in population impacted Skidegate residents, and the community as a whole?
A rapid increase in population affects a community in countless ways - some good and some not so good. The following are examples of impacts on our village:
Families are being reunited. People, some of whom have literally waited decades, are able to move home. As a result, additional skills, abilities, ideas, and experience are being introduced to the community.

The importance of long-term community planning has been brought to the forefront, as has the need for economic and infrastructure development.
The growth of our community has inspired an even greater will to keep Haida culture strong and our values intact. Our growth also finds us willing to share more of our history, traditions and beliefs with our neighbors and visitors. It has reinforced our determination to face and challenge our weaknesses, and to work at healing old wounds.

Another result of the increase in population is the fact that we simply ran out of space awhile ago. Skidegate is a small reserve, and in order to accommodate a growing population, the Band Council applied to the Department of Indian Affairs to expand the reserve.

A large impact that has been difficult to redress has been a steadily rising unemployment rate due mainly to the decline of the forest and commercial fishing industries. At present unemployment in Skidegate averages 50 percent; consequently, the need to generate local economic development and long term employment opportunities.

How have Skidegate Councils responded to these issues?
Beginning in the early 1980's, successive Band Councils tried again and again to pull together the resources required to build a gas bar. They envisioned this as the first step in creating a small commercial centre that would ultimately provide some goods, services, and employment opportunities. However, during those years Band Councils were not recognized as legal entities, and banks would not extend business loans to them. Frustrated, they began looking for new ways to obtain the loans required to facilitate economic development.

In 1991, the Band Council established Gwaalagaa Naay Corporation, a community-owned development corporation. It was charged with the responsibilities of managing some community-owned assets, and providing small-business advice to the community. It was also responsible for researching economic development opportunities, obtaining business loans, generating long-term employment opportunities, and making annual profits that were to be invested into community development.

A four-person board of directors was appointed, comprised of two Band councilors and two community representatives. The corporation was provided with an initial operating budget, and an administration staff, consisting of a manager and a part-time bookkeeper. Office space was made available in an existing building.
One of the earliest and most important agreements between the Band Council and Gwaalagaa Naay was that business and politics would be kept separate. Among other things, this meant that the corporation would operate under the direction of its board of directors, rather than that of the Council. This was a unique and bold step for the Council to take, as it required placing a great deal of trust in the new corporation, and a delegation of authority for managing some activities, assets, and programs for which Council had historically been responsible.

Work began on developing a strategy for undertaking economic development planning. Once this had been accomplished, public input was sought, and planning began in earnest. Finally, a feasibility study was undertaken, a business plan developed and, at long last, a chartered bank agreed to co-finance a project in Skidegate.

At the same time community-owned business development was taking place, Council and Gwaalagaa Naay were working on other things in an attempt to create a climate that encouraged private entrepreneurship. Over several years, business advisory services and some small-business workshops were made available; a community physical development plan was completed and ratified; and opportunities for leasing office and retail space were provided. Haida Gwaii Community Futures was encouraged to open a sub-office in Skidegate. This made their services more accessible to Skidegate residents as well as to those of neighboring communities. The development of an industrial site began, and plans were being considered for an expansion of commercial areas.

It has been exciting and gratifying to see individuals opening and expanding businesses in Skidegate. Some of these people saw opportunities arise; others saw gaps that weren't being filled; and still others fulfilled life-long dreams. All of them took a chance and got into business for themselves. And they share the same joys, the same concerns, and face the same uncertainties as those of proprietors in other communities.

Much of the development we see in Skidegate today is the end result of a decision to try something different.

Are there possible dangers associated with Skidegate's rapid growth?
Yes, there are. If things move too quickly without benefit of solid planning, the best intentions can go awry. In some instances, even good planning won't help if economies suddenly shift or other unanticipated developments arise.

An example of this is Gwaii Co-op's struggle to become a profitable operation. Although it is not a Band-owned business, it is in Skidegate's best interests to see the store succeed. It provides necessary goods and services to residents of our community and others, as well as valuable training and employment opportunities. Thanks to the ongoing efforts of its management and staff, Gwaii Co-op is anticipating this year, its first small profit.

How have residents of other communities responded to business development in Skidegate?
Businesses in Skidegate need not only the support of local residents but of people from other communities - just as other communities count on our support. We have been heartened to see a positive response to the new development, with only a very few exceptions. There is one misconception, though, that needs to be cleared up.

Perhaps due to the uncertainty of the Islands' current economy and the growth of Skidegate, there is a tendency of some people to believe that businesses here are government funded. I am not privy to, nor do I have the right to expound upon, all the financial details of privately owned businesses in Skidegate. Nor do I have the right to lay out the financing details of community-owned businesses. What I can say is this: If anyone thinks businesses are built in Skidegate without big-ass loans, they are sorely mistaken.

Enough said.

Now, back to my original question of whether competition in business is a bad thing.

No, it's not.

It would be foolish of anyone who owns a business to expect that no one else would ever open another, similar business in the same community. It would be even greater foolishness for them to think that no one in a completely separate community would ever open a similar business. That being said, it should be made clear that none of the Band-owned or private businesses in Skidegate were built for the purpose of competing with those in other communities, although competition has been a natural occurrence.

Although competition may at times present real problems to business owners, it is inevitable. If it weren't there would only be one business of each type in North America. We'd be flying to the store in Texas on Halifax Airlines to pick up a quart of BC milk. Or maybe we'd just keep a cow.

Competition helps keep prices down, improves customer service, and gives people more choice. It forces all business owners, established and new, to be creative and continually look for ways to improve their operations.

And to the question of whether relocation of a service or facility to Skidegate is a bad thing: No, it's not. It's just different.

This is not to say that I don't understand why Queen Charlotte residents are worried or have worked hard at keeping facilities within their community. I'd feel and do exactly the same if a facility or business in Skidegate were about to be relocated to Queen Charlotte. And another thing I'd do is take a close look at why it was being moved. Then I'd ask myself what the true, long-term impacts of a six-mile relocation would be. And, finally, I might take a look at the land and the building that was left, and wonder if there wasn't something new that could be done with one or both of them that would serve my community well.

And, I hope I would be honest with myself about the answers, despite the anxiety I felt.


SpruceRoots Magazine - September, 1999