The Hupacasath First Nation is tapping into the Alberni Valley’s natural resources—literally—with a maple syrup business.

First Nations set up in the Alberni Valley

Hupacasath, Tseshaht, Huu-ay-aht and Uchucklesaht are all investing in local projects around the Alberni Valley.

Economic development among the First Nations that call the Alberni Valley home base is going strong.

Hupacasath moving forward

The past year has been full of development for the Hupacasath First Nation.

“We made great progress in creating new companies for the Hupacasath First Nation. One of them is Kleekhoot Gold, our maple syrup production using big leaf maples,” said Hupacasath Councillor and communications coordinator Jolleen Dick.

The nation has been hard at work over the past several months, setting up infrastructure and developing towards full-scale production.

“We set up new infrastructure in Ahahswinis reserve, near our House of Gathering, and that’s going to house our commercial evaporator,” said Dick.

“It’s going to be the largest big leaf commercial maple syrup evaporator in the world.”

Big leaf maple syrup is different than the sugar leaf maple syrup produced in Quebec. It’s differentiated by taste and glycemic index.

The Hupacasath first looked at maple syrup as a way to make more sustainable use of their forests.

“Finding another use for our timber products was interesting to us and our Kleekhoot reserve offered that,” Dick said, adding that the first nation also wanted to expand upon their agricultural program and take advantage of their UBC student, Jason Lion.

“He is a student at UBC and that’s part of his studies,” Dick said.

The first year of Kleekhoot Gold has been studies and testing, with full-scale production to come later.

“We’re seeing how much is produced out of each tree, which trees are the best and the best location. We did a trial run on a hobby stove and so we got about 80 bottles,” Dick said. Since then, the Hupacasath have invested in the larger commercial evaporator.

“The harvesting season is December till March… next spring we hope to have some maple syrup produced and marketed in stores.”

Maple syrup isn’t the only thing that the Hupacasath have brewing.

The nation has submitted a proposal for the Clutesi Haven Marina RFP. The City of Port Alberni and the Port Alberni Port Authority partnered on the RFP and are offering a $500,000 incentive.

“We’re looking to do a public market on site in partnership with the city and port authority,” Dick said.

“We want to have a year-round place where people can buy affordable food but also diversifying what’s there.”

The key, Dick said, was ensuring that the site is sustainable year-round.

“We realize that it’s a high traffic area so we want to capture passersby but also create a place for the community to gather.”

The Hupacasath are currently conducting a feasibility study to see what’s viable for the site.

“This feasibility study is very comprehensive and will look at different options for what could be hosted on the site between a market, other amenities and so on.”

Huu-ay-aht focusing on Bamfield

Between purchasing 11 Bamfield properties and studying proposed liquefied natural gas facilities, it’s been a hectic year for the Huu-ay-aht First Nation —and it’s only going to get busier.

“The Bamfield properties are coming along. The [Bamfield] Motel and the Kingfisher [Lodge] are the main focus of the accommodation and tourism component,” said Coun. Trevor Cootes, who holds the economic development portfolio for the Huu-ay-aht.

The Huu-ay-aht purchased the formerly Jack Purdy-owned properties in January of this year, in a sale that signalled what Bamfield director Keith Wyton called a fresh start for the community. Purdy, the subject of numerous police and FBI investigations, was known locally as a slum landlord who let his real estate decay.

“I’m very excited to see what they do with the properties,” Wyton said in the early spring.

But developing those properties to their full potential will be a long-term not short-term plan for the Huu-ay-aht, Cootes said.

“We’re doing an interim strategy for this year and that’s to get it running and get it prepared for the season,” said Cootes.

“We want to develop a tourism strategy that has a large cultural component to it.”

In order to do that, the Huu-ay-aht will have to decide what sort of experience they want visitors to their land to have. After signing a treaty in 2011, the Huu-ay-aht own more than 8,200 hectares of land near the mouth of the Alberni Inlet.

“What type of experience do we want to provide the guests that come into our territory? What kind of cultural experience do we want to provide to our guests?”

Currently, Cootes said the focus is on Anacla, the Huu-ay-aht community just a few miles from Bamfield.

“How do we want to provide an experience using the [Pachena Bay] campground, the market, the motel, the Kingfisher [Lodge], the government dock and the float house for this year? And then going forward, as an organization how do we develop those strategies along with a marketing and promoting strategy?”

The main focus will be on Kiixin, a former summer village for the first nation.

“The site itself is a recognized cultural heritage site. We want to use that as our cultural main attraction. How do we bring culture back into our community and how do we share that with the world?”

That will rest on more than just the sites themselves, however.

“How do we develop the cultural experience? That leans less on the businesses themselves but more the people who work in them.”

One initiative that Cootes has brought forward has been the ambassador program.

“That was a five-day program aimed at introducing citizens and staff to Huu-ay-aht culture and how do we bridge that to being ambassadors for Huu-ay-aht?,” Cootes explained.

“We got to learn a little bit of our language, how to greet someone, how to say I’m very happy to meet you and talk about your family,” he said.

It’s touches like teaching the ambassadors how to talk about family that will provide the authenticity that Cootes believes is integral to the Huu-ay-aht’s cultural tourism strategy.

“That’s a critical component in our culture. When you meet somebody, often when they ask you who you are it’s not just your name but you also say who your mom and dad are and your parents. It gives a person an idea of where you’re coming from.”

Momentum drives Tseshaht FN

This has been a year of changes for the Tseshaht First Nations and newly-elected Chief Coun. Cynthia Dick is looking to take advantage of that momentum.

“The biggest thing is working on relationships. Relationships within our community to make us stronger as a nation and also relationships with the broader community,” said Dick.

Dick was elected in mid-May. At 26 years old on election day, she is the youngest female chief councillor that the Tseshaht have ever had.

While new to the role, she’s looking forward.

“I know for me what I would like to do is focus on utilizing the resources that haven’t been in the past, regarding economic development,” Dick said.

“Maybe that means an economic development committee needs to be formed.”

Cultural tourism is something that Dick is looking at as a possible new endeavour.

“I’ve heard it from a lot of community members and I think that’s definitely something that we need to look into. We have the perfect location for it and we have a strong cultural background where we could offer something unique to Port Alberni and tourists.”

The Tseshaht will also continue to build on their emergency preparedness initiatives —something that former Chief Councillor Hugh Braker emphasized during his terms.

“There has been an initiative… I think that Hugh [Braker] has been proactive in making sure of that,” Dick said.

Uchucklesaht build on successes

Argyle Street’s newest building is soon to be complete, according to Uchucklesaht Chief Coun. Charlie Cootes.

“It should open either in late August of in early September,” said Cootes.

It took the Uchucklesaht a long time to decide on where their new building, known as the Thunderbird, should go.

“We looked a long time for an admin office. We were always renting off someone else so we decided to look for something that we could purchase and could pay for itself,” said Cootes.

The Uchucklesaht decided on the former Somass Hotel building at the corner of Argyle Street and Kingsway Avenue.

“We thought it would be a good opportunity,” said Cootes.

“The building will consist of a cultural centre in the basement which would handle canoes and logs for totem poles. We’d also have our cultural admin offices down there, as well as an exercise room and a fish processing area, as well as three nightly rentals.”

The nightly rental rooms will target other first nations who need to transport patients for medical care to Port Alberni or on to other cities.

“The second floor we’re proposing a restaurant or cafe of some sort,” Cootes said, adding that while they don’t have anyone in mind yet, the nation may just run it as a cafe themselves.

The second floor will also house administration offices, rentable board rooms and 34 one- or two-bedroom units.

“That was the magical formula so that we could have a multi-use building that would serve our purposes and pay for itself.”

Initially, the Uchucklesaht thought that they could renovate the former hotel but once they got it, quickly realized that renovating wasn’t feasible.

“It would up having too many structural deficiencies so we made a decision to demolish it and build a new building.”

They’re taking the opportunity to include some add-ons.

“Our roof area is being built to have future developments such as putting solar panels up there to offset our hydro costs.”

A little bit of green space will also be created as a result of the new development.

“We’re leasing the parking lot above the hotel, between it and First Avenue,” said Cootes.

“We’re going to put some green space on it, some additional parking and some room for vendors —a public market type atmosphere.”

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