“It’s when First Nations, Industry, Provincial and Federal governments all get what they need from a deal,” says Patrick Michell, the Kanaka Bar Indian Band Community Liaison. “I believe we should take what we need for today and save something for tomorrow. We all win by developing something reasonable.”
Miller Titerle + Co.’s First Nations Economic Development group, led by Rob Miller, has been working with the Kanaka Bar Indian Band since 2010 on the Kwoiek Creek Hydroelectric Project. “I was looking for a firm that was prepared to do something different”, says Patrick. “When I met Rob Miller, he was unshaven and wasn’t wearing a three-piece suit. I had no idea what I was getting into, but I knew that I was looking for a firm to represent my community. I liked that these guys weren’t in traditional lawyer clothing, and that they were a little rough around the edges, yet they were still a corporate law firm which is what we needed.”
Kanaka is a relatively small First Nations community in the Fraser Canyon, and everybody is located on a single road. “Through community outreach we identified a bunch of issues that were on the community’s mind,” says Rob. “They wanted an opportunity to escape dependency on federal government funding and to implement structural change so that they could manage prosperity in a manner consistent with traditional values.”
MT+Co. spent a lot of time in the community explaining a very complex business deal, and making sure that everyone understood what it meant to enter into a partnership with Innergex Renewable Energy. “It was about being there with them and listening to concerns, finding ways to address those concerns, and explaining the transaction so the community could make an informed decision,” says Rob.
Patrick admits he has spent his entire life walking in two worlds. After receiving his law degree, he spent 8 years practicing law before moving back to Kanaka Bar. He knew that he needed a law firm that understood his community and Kanaka’s corporate partner, and that was prepared to question some of the instructions they received. “I was looking for a firm that was willing to find middle ground and communicate with us around it,” comments Patrick.
Patrick has been investigating and documenting the Nalaka’pamux Nation’s history for 49 years or so, and supporting his community’s leadership since he was 13 years old. In 1990, the leadership applied for a water license to pursue a hydro project, although at the time they may not have realized that the water license could be tied to both the individual and the community’s future well being. Kanaka Bar was suffering from high unemployment and a fractured community and this project represented a significant opportunity for them on a number of fronts.
Kanaka Bar not only needed support brokering this partnership, they also needed support setting up a governance structures to support change. “The more we went up and talked with the community, the more comfortable they got sharing their real concerns with us,” reflects Rob. “Their tradition is based on a deep history and connection with the watershed that the project was being build in, so we had to ask ourselves how we could structure their economic development in a way that rekindles some of that tradition.”
By bringing together legal perspectives with community interests and Kanaka tradition, everything started to fall into place. “We are breaking the culture of dependency. We are looking to give future generations the best opportunity – we won’t hand tie them,” proclaims Patrick. “We have a fear factor that creates paralysis, always questioning whether it’s the right decision or not. Miller Titerle understood the totality of the deal, and gave us the self-esteem and confidence to make the decision. We rely on their recommendations and suggestions. We are slowly growing up, and they are guiding us through.”
For the last five years, MT+Co. has brought their staff to the Kanaka Christmas party. They dress up as Santa and hand out gifts to the kids. “They already have our business, and there was no media involved, they do it because they care,” says Patrick. “It turns out that Miller Titerle is a firm whose staff share similar principles and values as we do.”
“We have watched them grow from a community of neighbours who would fight to having a proper functioning chief and council. We helped them set up a hydro project that is now generating revenue and allowing them to set up other businesses and purchase their first parcel of private property. We’re seeing them develop and grow,” states Rob, who also happened to be a groomsman at Patrick’s wedding last summer.
Kanaka has recently used some of the revenue from the project to bring in a CEO who’s working on implementing systems and developing clear lines of communication between the leaders and the community.
“It isn’t the end of the story – it’s really just the beginning. This was the foundation, the base, and now they’re going to build good things on it,” remarks Rob.
Photo credit of Kanaka Bar Reserve: Heiner Engbrocks on Flickr