Community Excellence - not an instant coffee!

October 20, 2019

What is meant by community excellence? How can it be achieved? More importantly, how can it be sustained? In this blog, we will explore the answers to these questions, and many more, by analyzing efforts of an Indigenous community located only three hours away from Vancouver in the beautiful Fraser Canyon region of British Columbia (BC). We have been fortunate to have an opportunity to serve this community for over seven years now. It has been a humbling, eye-opening and intense learning experience for us. During this time, we have come to recognize and acknowledge that all communities are unique in their own way and what works for one may or may not work for others. The story that follows is a true story of one such community i.e. T'eqt''aqtn'mux or Kanaka Bar Indian Band, as it came to be known post-colonization. We discuss the various chapters covering different periods in this community’s lifecycle.

Pre-colonization to 2011

Kanaka Bar's history, culture, tradition and economy dates back to 7,000 years. They are a part of the Nlaka'pamux Nation, which is made up of 15 distinct Indigenous communities who share the same language, culture and traditions. Since time immemorial, Kanaka lived off its land and resources by sustainably fishing, hunting, gathering and thriving within the community's Traditional Territory. It was not until early 1800s that the community had its first contact with European explorers. The first fifty years after the contact were considered rather peaceful with fair trade practices and mutual respect. Gold was then found, during mid 19th century, along the banks of Fraser River. That changed things for Kanaka Bar, other Indigenous communities, present day BC and in fact Canada. With gold came greed and a clash of values leading to the 1858 Fraser Canyon war. Following the war, the Colony of BC was formed and Canada confederated as a country in 1867. BC joined the Confederation in 1871 and the matters pertaining to Indigenous communities became a Federal responsibility. The Federal government, thus, created the Indian Act to ‘manage the Indian'. The Indian Act was a racist attempt to forcefully assimilate Indigenous people in to the mainstream Canadian society and, sadly, it still exists today. Since creation of the Indian Act, many other policies and practices were established with very similar discriminatory objectives. For example, creation of reserve lands to restrict movement of Indigenous people, forcing residential schools, expropriation of lands, banning of traditional, cultural and spiritual practices and not considering Indigenous people as Canadian citizens. It was not until 1973's Calder decision when the Supreme Court of Canada recognized Aboriginal title and rights for the first time in Canadian law. This was a new beginning for Indigenous people across the country, including Kanaka Bar.

The colonial practices of the past century and a half had created significant deficiencies for Kanaka in terms of people, time, money and technology. Many people were forced to leave the community in search of the so-called better life elsewhere. Nonetheless, the people who stayed back realized that they needed to recover and take control of their future. So, they looked at their land, which had sustained them for thousands of years, and were inspired to utilize it sustainably to build a better future for the community, especially the younger generations. This is where and when the idea of developing Kwoiek Creek Hydro Project was born. It was 1978 to be exact. It would take another 36 years for Kanaka to develop Kwoiek, a 50MW run-of-river project located within the community’s Traditional Territory. Why that long though? Limited capacity and due diligence to be precise. Kwoiek was an economic development venture endorsed by the entire community. Reasons to develop this project, according to Chief Patrick Michell, was to take control of Kanaka’s future because the past was negatively impacted by colonial racism, discrimination and, in some cases, violence. After realizing that Kwoiek was the key to Kanaka's self-sufficient future, the community set themselves for a long journey. It took a decade plus some years for the community to get the actual water licence, another decade or so to find the right business partners and another half or so to secure all relevant permits and finalize agreements with the suppliers, customers and neighboring communities etc. Ultimately, in December of 2011, Kwoiek reached a point of no return and the construction on the project commenced. It took another three years for the project to achieve its commercial operation date. During this time, Kwoiek generated many intangible benefits (e.g. pride and joy) as well as many tangible ones (e.g. jobs and financial returns), all of which were reinvested in community in some way or shape to encourage resiliency. This reinvestment created an abundance of wealth, both non-financial and financial, within Kanaka’s local economy. The power purchase agreement for Kwoiek expires after 40 years in 2053, which means this wealth will continue to be generated and circulated in the community - Kanaka did take control of its future, after all.

It is also important to note that during the three and a half decades that Kwoiek was being developed, constructed and brought to an operational level, Kanaka did not just sit around. They acquired new land, developed much needed housing, improved water storage, treatment and distribution systems, built better roads and became a taxing authority. The community did what it needed to do to sustain itself with the limited resources it had. With Kwoiek, of course, this equation changed dramatically. Kanaka Bar now had its own economic driver intended to improve the community’s overall quality of life by contributing to its financially self-sufficiency vision.

2011 to date

As soon as Kwoiek received its leave for construction, Kanaka proactively began making arrangements for its next strategic initiative. The community inherently knew that they needed to prepare themselves and plan ahead to utilize the wealth that Kwoiek was to generate for the next 40 years. They knew that they needed frameworks, policies, controls and plans to develop a sustainable future for the community. So, in 2012, Kanaka commenced a new chapter and found an intern to assist with governance and financial management planning for the community. By January 2013, the community had successfully developed Membership, Election and Governance Codes, all of which collectively solidified Kanaka's foundations and gave the people a voice in community matters. Simultaneously, this constitutional framework allowed Kanaka to separate its business from politics, and decision-making from implementation. Subsequently, the community hired a CEO in May 2013 to streamline the organizational structure, financial management practices, institutional policies and internal controls. Over the next year or so, Kanaka assessed its operations, processes and people, and enacted a Financial Administration Law. In July 2014, the community was certified by the First Nation Financial Management Board for its financial performance due to the efforts made in the years before. This was a significant achievement for the community given that they were three years behind in preparing their financial statements in 2013. Today, Kanaka is one of the first few Indigenous communities to prepare and publish its financial statements before the nationally legislated deadline. This is part of Kanaka’s commitment towards transparency, accountability and fairness, something that the people had articulated in the discussions that led to development of the constitutional framework in 2013.

During 2014, Kanaka also started restructuring its organization to allow for further economic development and protect the community from any sort of liability. Towards the end of the year, the community engaged professional land planners to assist with development of a Land Use Plan (LUP) to understand the past, present and future uses of Kanaka's six reserves. The LUP was finalized in March 2015 after consulting with over 60 community members and, for the first time, Kanaka codified its vision of using the land and resources in a self-sufficient, sustainable and vibrant manner. The year 2015 also saw a change in Kanaka’s leadership and for the first time the Codes described above were implemented. Right after the change in leadership, the community finalized it Organizational Structure that created clear lines of communication, separated business from politics, and for-profit activities from non-profit. Soon after that, the new leadership commenced working towards a Community Economic Development Plan (CEDP), which narrowed down the many opportunities outlined in the LUP and prioritized the ones that were to be implemented over the next five years. These priorities were defined by the people. At the same time, Kanaka also began working towards its Housing Initiative because the leadership knew that healthy, safe and affordable housing was key to a good quality of life at community and individual levels. By mid 2016, Kanaka had finalized its CEDP and a brand new Housing Policy. Towards the end of the same year, a Personnel Policy was also finalized to give certainty to the employees working for the Band and Band-owned economic development entities.

From 2016 onwards, Kanaka began another interesting chapter in its lifecycle. The community had strengthened its foundations, restructured itself, had a plan and developed a team. It was now time for execution and implementation of the various initiatives outlined in the CEDP. The CEDP had four key themes: 1) Food Self-sufficiency; 2) Energy Self-sufficiency; 3) Employment Self-sufficiency; and 4) Financial Self-sufficiency. Each theme had several projects that allowed Kanaka to achieve the goals set by the people. To complement each theme, the community also articulated Foundational Community/Infrastructure Development initiatives within the CEDP. To ensure that the CEDP was being followed as intended, Kanaka commenced a Bi-Annual Strategic Planning exercise, which summarized the community’s activities of the past six months and the plans for next six. This exercise created solid checks and balances within the community and allowed for communication of internal plans with various internal and external stakeholders. As a result, Kanaka was very successful in achieving its CEDP goals. This can be supported by the fact that the community acquired new private lands, developed a food forest, constructed several small scale clean energy projects, built new housing, renovated existing homes and set up an endowment fund for the future generations. All of these initiatives were executed with a significant contribution from Kanaka’s own people in terms of their time and knowledge. As a result of these efforts, Kanaka’s employment numbers went up to 34 people on average in any given month. This was significant considering that there are only 75 people living in the community. This excellent effort did not go unnoticed by entities external to Kanaka. In 2018, the community’s economic development arm received an award from BC Achievement Foundation for Community-owned Business of the Year. At the same time, the community received a Best Practices award from Aboriginal Financial Officers Association of BC. More recently, in October 2019, Kanaka’s efforts were recognized at a national level by Aboriginal Financial Officers Association of Canada.

Going Forward

Today, Kanaka continues to pursue its plans and initiatives with humility and passion. Over the past few years, the community has been closely monitoring the changes in its land, resources, environment and economy. In 2018, Kanaka completed a Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment to connect community’s traditional knowledge and observations with that of science, logic and reason. This effort was to allow Kanaka to be prepared for the environment and economy of tomorrow because the community inherently knew something was drastically changing today as a result of human activities of the past couple of centuries. Therefore, the need to secure food, water, air, shelter and energy became more important than ever before. Since realizing these needs, the community has been incrementally working towards understanding the resources that are available. For example, the new water gauging stations allow Kanaka to be mindful of the quality and quantity of the water. Similarly, the energy and food initiatives allow Kanaka to understand what works and what does not, and be able to scale up. At the same time, the weather stations continuously collects site specific data for temperature, precipitation and air quality, all of which is extremely critical for Kanaka’s future planning.

Over the next year or so, Kanaka will embark on a new journey. The first CEDP is about to come to an end and the community will soon commence working towards a new implementation plan. That said, Kanaka is already ahead of time, as they have started working on what needs to be done next. Kanaka knows that it needs to invest in initiatives that will make the community even more resilient than what it is today. That means pursuing initiatives that will allow Kanaka to be ready for the environment and economy of tomorrow. That means investments in affordable and energy efficient housing, clean local energy production, food, transportation and eco-tourism infrastructure, water and forest management. Most important aspect of Kanaka’s future, however, will be constant investments in its people’s knowledge, skills and capacity to be able to execute everything as locally as possible. All of this is articulated in Kanaka’s most recent Winter Plan that can be found at: http://www.kanakabarband.ca/downloads/winter-plan-2019.pdf

Everything that Kanaka has been pursuing since 1978 has been interconnected and aimed at taking charge of community’s future. Kanaka has come a long way. Every plan, policy, project and program has been aligned with the community vision of becoming self-sufficient, sustainable and vibrant. Today, the community continues to be involved in ensuring there is transparency, accountability and fairness across the board. This can be observed every third Thursday when then members meet with leaders to understand the efforts made during the last 3o days and the plans for the next 30 days. Moreover, a serious attempt is made to keep the community’s official website up to date with accurate and relevant information pertaining to Kanaka’s entire operations.

Without investing time, knowledge and energy in thinking long term, persevering, developing a good team and carrying out good governance practices, none of this could have ever happened. That is what we think is meant by community excellence. And it took Kanaka Bar more than 40 years to achieve it.

It sure was not an instant coffee!

Written By Zain Nayani and Asad Nayani

Click here to read the original article published on Oct 20, 2019 at ZN Advisory's website.