British Columbia

'A place to come home to': Tlowitsis Nation establishes new community near Campbell River

Members of the small First Nation have been scattered around B.C. with no reserve to call home since the 1960s.

Nation's members have been scattered around B.C. with no reserve to call home since the 1960s

Councillor Thomas Smith says the Tlowitsis Nation has been working to establish a home community for decades. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

The sign at the start of a gravel driveway leading into a rural piece of land just outside Campbell River, B.C., says "Nenagwas" — "a place to come home to." 

Tlowitsis councillor Thomas Smith says that's exactly what this new 635-acre area is for his nation of about 450 people, who have not had a place to call home for decades.

"We need a place for our people to live and be able to make decisions about their territory and governing, and you can't do that unless you have a community," Smith says.

Traditionally, the Tlowitsis Nation occupied a number of sites on the coastal area of northern Vancouver Island and adjacent mainland inlets.

Since members left their last settlement of Kalagwee on Turnour Island in the 1960s, the Tlowitsis have been scattered around B.C. with no reserve to call home. (Tlowitsis Nation)

The nation has 11 reserves in its traditional territory, but Smith says they are all tiny pieces of remote land and are not suitable for building a community.

Establishing a community

Since the school closed in Kalagwee on Turnour Island in the 1960s and members left the settlement, the Tlowitsis have been scattered around B.C. with no one place to call home.

"We haven't had any access to a lot of programs to help our members move forward," Smith says.

Many Tlowitsis members chose to settle in and around Campbell River.

Even though the area is not traditional Tlowitsis territory, Smith says the land near the Vancouver Island city made the most sense for establishing a new settlement because it's close to employment opportunities, schools and medical care.

For now, the former forestry lot purchased by the nation is covered with replanted timber. Smith envisions eco-friendly homes, schools, and an administration office taking shape in the coming years, but much will also remain as natural environment.

Establishing the community is a key step toward helping the nation reclaim its culture, Smith says, especially its younger members.

"Everybody wants to know where they come from, what their connection is," he said.

Long search

The Tlowitsis Nation's search for a home community dates back to the 1970s.

But it was not until 2015 that the nation managed to buy the property near Campbell River for $3 million, using revenue from its businesses.

From there, it had to work through the bureaucratic hurdles of a process called Addition To Reserve with Indigenous Services Canada.

Most communities use the process to expand an existing reserve, Smith says. Trying to create a new Indigenous community was more complicated and required more time than expected.

Smith envisions eco-friendly homes, schools, and an administration office taking shape on this former forestry lot covered with replanted timber. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

But late last year, the Tlowitsis received an Order in Council from the federal government granting reserve status for the piece of land.

The new community, Nenagwas Indian Reserve No. 12, officially went on the books in February for "the use and benefit of the Tribe," according to Indigenous Services Canada.

The community held a celebration at the site in June and placed signs at the entrances to the property.

Now they are working through a planning process for building a community — everything from figuring out utilities such as sewer and power lines to designing neighbourhoods and homes.

Resistance and racism

But when the Tlowitsis first went public with their plan to create a new reserve, they did not get the warmest welcome. Instead, they faced resistance and even some open racism.

"It was pretty frightening because they even wrote on the roadway 'no rez'," Smith says.

Tlowitsis children attending school also bore the brunt of negative reactions, something Smith says was particularly upsetting.

But he chalks some of the tension up to a misunderstanding of the process.

Trying to establish a new reserve is vastly different than when a developer puts together a plan for a new neighbourhood and provides wide public consultation, he says.

Once people had more information about the community the Tlowitsis want to create, Smith says the reception improved.

A community, not a reserve

The Tlowitsis Nation is also in treaty negotiations and hopes to achieve self-governance in the near future. At that point, the community would no longer have to be known as a reserve.

Even now, Smith says the reserve number is in small print on the sign and is only a formality to conform to the federal process.

"We don't call it a reserve. We call it a community, because that is what it is."

Listen to Thomas Smith describe the long journey to establishing a new Tlowitsis community:

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Megan Thomas


Megan Thomas is a reporter for CBC in Victoria, B.C. She covers stories from around Vancouver Island and the Sunshine Coast. Follow her on Twitter @meganTcbc.