New agreement will unite communities across Simpcw territory

Written By Fran Yanor

“This is reconciliation in action.”

­–Owen Torgerson

A ground-breaking agreement will soon bind together Simpcw First Nation and four communities across its territory in a shared commitment to work together and build prosperity for everyone in the North Thompson-Robson Valley.

“I see a lot of benefits to working together,” said Simpcw chief George Lampreau. “As a collective, we can push all of the things that our communities need together – housing, water, roads, police, ambulance, power.”

A united voice will be stronger than any one single community, he said. 

Simpcw’s territorial claim is five million hectares, stretching from north of Kamloops, east to Jasper and north into the Robson Valley. The Memorandum of Understanding will include Simpcw, Barriere, Clearwater, Valemount and McBride.

“All communities are going to work together on all issues of mutual interest in the North Thompson Valley – economic, health care, safety, public safety, and all that sort of thing,” said Clearwater mayor Merlin Blackwell.

“What’s good for Clearwater is probably good for Valemount. And vice versa,” said Valemount mayor Owen Torgerson, rhyming off more issues of concern for the group, including energy redundancies, highway safety, forest landscape planning and health care. 

“These are all commonalities between our communities,” Torgerson said.

Valemount mayor Owen Torgerson with Simpcw chief George Lampreau in between meetings at the Union of BC Municipalities annual conference last month. [Photo Eric Depenau]

“An MOU may not have binding language legally, nor financially,” he said. “It really sets the tone of how we’re going to work together.” 

One core goal of the MOU is to chart a path of cooperation for future administrations in the Robson and North Thompson valleys, so if a council’s leadership changes, the spirit of the MOU will remain, Torgerson said.

Indigenous Relations Minister Murray Rankin commended the group.

“It sounds like an excellent example of the kind of collaboration we’re encouraging for economic development, so indigenous and non-Indigenous people can have a brighter future together in the Thompson Valley,” Rankin said.

Cooperation becoming more common

That inclination to cooperate is becoming more common, said Skeena MLA Ellis Ross. “Back in my day, it was them over there, us over here, government over here.”

A former chief councillor of Haisla First Nation, Ross said, “A lot of First Nations have really incorporated the idea of embracing economic development, while protecting environmental management statutes. So, now it just seems natural for a region to start cooperating together.”

Ross has been a representative in the Kitimat area for the past 20 years, first as Haisla councillor, then chief, then as the BC Liberal (now BC United) MLA. In that time, Haisla has evolved to become one of the wealthiest and progressive territories in the province with the LNG Canada terminal being built and Cedar LNG – the first Indigenous-majority-owned LNG project in Canada – approved.

Current Haisla chief councillor Crystal Smith called Cedar LNG “economic reconciliation.”

“First Nations communities are starting to understand that if we do this for the betterment of all of us, we’re actually talking about better schools, better hospitals, better highways,” said Ross.

‘Our success is our people’

It’s a lesson already learned by Simpcw, according to Lampreau. For the three or four years the nation dealt with TransMountain while the company built pipeline through its territory, less than one per cent of Simpcw members were on social assistance. 

“Everybody that was able to work in the community, worked. My hat’s off to them, because we have a good workforce that want to take advantage and better their lives,” Lampreau said. 

“We’re very fortunate in that way, because some communities are not so fortunate and they struggle with one, having opportunities, and two, having people wanting to work. We’re fortunate that our people want to work and take advantage and they’re really active in that. And it’s really helped us.

“Our success is our people.”

Lampreau said his community knows how to take advantage of partnerships and opportunities. Trans mountain brought hundreds of millions of dollars into the community in jobs and the nation’s business arm, Simpcw Resources, he said.

And the nation already had MOUs with each of the mayors in the area, as well as with forest licensees operating in its territory, along with a 20-year-old agreement with a cedar mill in Barriere that employs Simpcw members. 

The group MOU with the municipalities is a natural extension of decades of work.

Nation will be involved from outset

Working together will enable each municipality to make more progress on issues then they would be able to do alone. And it will ensure the nation is involved from the outset in resolving major issues within its territory.

Early Simpcw involvement will add weight to whatever issue a municipality is trying to make progress on, Lampreau said. “It makes more sense to have us from the start. So that the province can’t say, ‘Oh, have you collaborated with First Nations?’” And it shows, that “we’re willing to work with our neighbors and enhance the value.’” 

Municipal boundaries sometimes limit what mayors can do on issues, Lampreau said. “But if they’re within our territorial boundary, our membership give us direction to speak on behalf of the whole territory.”

Some First Nation communities haven’t yet decided whether hereditary or elected leaders speak for them. “But our titleholders, our membership, give us direction to speak on our whole boundary. So that opens it up for us to deal with the mayors anywhere in our territory,” Lampreau said.

MOU represents years of work

Simpcw territory is a “a huge, huge area,” said Barriere mayor Ward Stamer.

Simpcw territorial map. [Map Simpcw First Nation]

“They’re are going to be the overpowering entity in the valley because their traditional territory encompasses all of our municipalities and then some, so it only makes sense for us to be able to work together.” 

The MOU will represent years of effort between all the communities, Stamer said. “We’ve always felt that if it’s better for the Valley, it’s better for all of us.”

Simpcw and Barriere have a longstanding relationship of cooperation. Simpcw members live and work in Barriere and the two administrations are currently collaborating on a new housing project, the mayor said.

An MOU will build on all of the communities’ strengths in economics, commerce and new housing. “It’s going to be for the valley, it’s not going to be for one particular municipality,” Stamer said.

The group is aiming to sign the MOU this winter, with a ceremonial signing later in the spring. The premier and the leaders of the opposition parties will all be invited, “because this is not a partisan issue,” said Valemount’s Torgerson.

Cooperation becoming more common

The chief credits previous councils and his community for creating the solid policies and procedures he now has to work with. 

“I myself have inherited a good community to be a leader in because good financial management policies were in place, human resource policies, all of our basic policies to operate were put in place by prior leadership which governed us and set us up to be where we are. 

“I get to build off of what they’ve left for me.”

Given the current environment of rights and title owners being recognized by the courts and upper levels of government, First Nations today have leverage if they’re able to use it, Lampreau said. 

“Now is the time to make change.”

“We’re in a good position and this collaborative is going to do it for not only Simpcw, but for the rest of the people in the whole North Thompson. 

“For me, that’s what it’s about. We take advantage of the business opportunities, the partnerships, and see how we can make it a benefit for everyone.”