The Pacheedaht First Nation is a tiny community, but says Chief Jeff Jones, what it lacks in size, it more than makes up for in the scope of its accomplishments and its vision for the future.
“It’s very exciting, really. We’ve got employment opportunities now and can’t find enough workers so we call upon people in Port Renfrew,” Jones said.
“It’s also giving us the opportunity to call some people, our people who had left the First Nation, back home, and that’s a good thing.”
Jones said for years, the band members worked in the logging industry, but when that industry collapsed in the 1980s and the sawmills started shutting down, a lot of employment started getting “sucked out” of the community.
That fueled social problems on the reserve. Unemployment, poverty and hopelessness that highlighted the need for the Pacheedaht to take control of their own destiny.
“What these people have accomplished in the past few years is incredible. These people are such wonderful people … so resilient,” said April Roper, the band manager.
“In the past year alone, the band has built new housing, paved its roads, installed a drainage system, built a water treatment system and tapped into an enormous aquifer beneath its lands to provide a pristine water source to the community.”
Roper added as much as the improvements to the reserve property has been important, it’s the simultaneous economic initiatives taken by the band that may be more significant.
“In March 2018, we entered into an agreement to tap into tourism on the West Coast Trail and now operate a campground in conjunction with Parks Canada. We built a new campground office as a part of that deal, and I think it’s just the beginning of our tourism opportunities,” she said.
Roper also pointed to the band’s November opening of the first gas station in the Port Renfrew area in 20 years, the opening of a small, niche market cedar sawmill, and the operation of the Sea Foam fish processing plant – a plant that opened its doors in May.
“The economic development has been remarkable and it has given people hope again,” she said.
But for all of the successes, the leaders of the Pacheedaht First Nation recognize that healing a community doesn’t happen overnight.
“Drugs and alcohol are still an issue but we’re concentrating on the grassroots. Economic development is a part of that, of course. If you can give people stable employment, you have the basis for a healthy family as a foundation. Those families can then contribute to the community and it has a ripple effect that keeps growing,” Jones said.
Roper agreed with the assessment but noted that individual histories can create challenges that non-First-Nation neighbours of the reserve may not understand.
“I was talking to a mother who lost a daughter to suicide and then had four children seized by the Ministry of Child and Family Services. So she’s dealing with that suicide and the loss of her children and being told that she’s unfit to be a mother,” Roper said.
“Things like that, they crash people’s worlds. Some days, it’s got to be hard to get out of bed and do anything and, having those losses, it’s easier to numb yourself in the bottom of a bottle.”
But Roper points out that change is happening.
“We have a health clinic and a clinical psychologist that comes in twice a month. But we’re also working to rediscovering who we are,” she said.
“People are rediscovering their identity, their language, how to live off the land, activities like harvesting seafood and hunting elk … even traditional skills like cedar pulling. These are all things that help to rediscover our traditional ways. If you find that identity within yourself, then you start to remember who you are and where you came from and you find your strength as a person.”
With those strategies in place, Jones is looking to the future.
“We were 3,500 strong at one time,” he said. “Then came smallpox and colonization and in the end, our people were split off into smaller bands because that made us easier to control. Now we have about 120 people living on our reserve with about 300 in total scattered all over the region. We’d like to bring them home.”
Driving along one of the newly paved roads, Jones pointed out Browns Mountain, a piece of land that the Pacheedaht bought in 2015.
“Ten years from now, I’d love to move the entire community up there. We’re level with the water here and a tsunami would wipe us out, and I think we’ve worked too hard for that to happen,” Jones said. “We’re looking to the future and we will survive.”