For Tom Happynook of the Huu-ay-aht Nation, becoming self-governing through the implementation of a treaty changed the Nation’s circumstances completely.
Since the treaty went through in 2011, the nation, located outside of Bamfield on the west coast, has been able to provide for members of their nation that live away from home (off reserve) as well as focus on economic development.
“We’re just really having the opportunity to generate our own revenue and to create or purchase businesses that we think meet our values system,” he said.
Happynook was the chief treaty negotiator for a time for his nation. Since then he has been appointed as a commissioner for the BC Treaty Commission. He will be in Campbell River with the commission on March 7 for an information night on treaties and reconciliation.
At the moment, there are three First Nations groups in the area in active treaty negotiations; the Homalco Indian Band, the Tlowitsis, the Wei Wai Kum Kwiakah Treaty Society (the Wei Wai Kum and the Kwiakah) and the Laich-Kwil-Tach Council of Chiefs (the We Wai Kai). The K’ómoks First Nations to the south are in final agreement negotiations.
“Having a treaty changes dramatically the circumstances of the communities,” Happynook said. “We need to get more treaties.”
The Huu-ay-aht treaty took effect April 1, 2011. That evening, Happynook and his community members burned printed pages of the Indian Act and then sat down for their first legislative session.
“We enacted 16 laws and 16 regulations and when we walked out of the Big House, it was around 2:30 in the morning, the moon was shining and the stars were out and we were free,” he recalled. “We were free to make our own decisions.”
No longer would they have to wait seven months for permission to move downed trees from a campground, Happynook said. Not only to get permission to move and sell the trees but have the money held for them in a trust, forcing them to make applications to use the money.
The 20 years of negotiating were over. Happynook said at the time he thought of Nelson Mandela.
“Truly, my experience wasn’t as large and huge and worldly as that but in my own small way, I felt we had gotten rid of an apartheid and we were now taking on our own future,” he said.
Since then the nation has been implementing the treaty. They have purchased the grocery store in their village as well as the restaurant and pub.
They purchased 55 hectares of land in Bamfield Inlet. They own two fishing charter resorts.
They own the land that hosts the little gravel airport in the area.
Happynook said that the young people in their community no longer have to leave the area to find work.
“Our people are no longer living in poverty,” he said. “We have now changed the circumstances of our community for the better.”
The nation is also able to care for their people that live away from home and since part of their treaty is to have some child and family services jurisdiction, the nation is working on reconnecting with children in ministry care.
Happynook and his fellow commissioners as well as staff from the BC Treaty Association will be available to answer questions about treaties and reconciliation on March 7 at the Maritime Heritage Centre from 5 to 8 p.m. The speeches and performances begin at 6 p.m.
*Correction notice: We had outdated information as to some of the ongoing treaty negotiations in the area and the different nations that are working together. It has been corrected and we apologize for the error.