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First Nations cultural centre gets federal boost



First Nations were given a notable financial boost by the federal government to assist with planning for a cultural centre in Whistler.

"We view this project as a beginning, for when you create one success, it leads to others," said Chief Gibby Jacob of the Squamish Nation.

Robert Nault, Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development Canada, announced on Nov. 30 an investment of $199,000, during a press conference at the Whistler Conference Centre.

Young dancers, singers and drummers from the Lil'wat Nation kicked off the discussion.

Nault was presented with a traditional marker from leaders of the Squamish and Lil'wat Nations and was then invited back to the region to open the centre once it is completed, in about three years time.

The minister said the centre will be an excellent opportunity to showcase the history, cultures and traditions of the Lil'wat and Squamish Nations.

"I want to encourage you to get on with the hard work and the job that needs to be done," he said.

The plans for the centre are still in the early development stages but the money from the federal government will help fund various feasibility studies such as a topographical survey, a geo-technical study, an environmental assessment and an archeological assessment.

"Hopefully we'll acquire the land. That's the major hurdle, other than the capitalization of the project," said Jacob.

There are still ongoing negotiations with the municipality and the British Columbia Assets and Land Corporation to secure tenure of a piece of Crown land, bordered by Blackcomb Way and Lorimer Road on the east side of Fitzsimmons Creek.

When the project moves forward to the business plan development stage, there will be extensive community consultation. The project will also be marketed to potential investors.

Mayor Hugh O'Reilly says although they are still in the preliminary development stages, the project is very exciting.

"It's the one piece, in my mind, that is noticeable by its absence," he said. "It's an opportunity to blossom and build relationships between these two communities in Whistler. My endeavour is to try and help foster that."

The plans for the facility focus around five acres of land at the east end Lorimer Road, across from the Fairmont Chateau Whistler.

"That land has always been identified (by the municipality) as a cultural centre," said O'Reilly.

This cultural centre is expected to include a First Nations traditional village, interpretative trails and a ceremonial gathering area.

"We want to show the world that we are not in museums, that we are a living people," said Jacob.

Additionally, there are plans for a conference centre, craft market, a restaurant and a tour guide expedition.

"We want to show the world that we can contribute to the social net of this province," said Jacob. "Joining the economy of this region is critical to us."

If all goes according to plan, the centre will cost approximately $13 million to build and should be up and running in about three years. It will provide employment and economic development opportunities for First Nations people.

"It will generate money but also pride for our people," said Jacob.

The Chief also called this venture "history-making," as it will be the first time the Squamish Nation will be doing a project off their reserve.

During the presentation, Nault stressed the importance of this centre for the 2010 Olympic Bid.

"A strong partnership with First Nations is essential to a successful bid," he said.

Lyle Leo, the CEO of the Lil'wat Nation, assured the minister that both the Squamish and Lil'wat Nations have agreed to participate meaningfully in 2010.

The seeds of building a First Nations cultural centre were sown about four years ago when the municipality and the Squamish and Lil'wat Nations began to brainstorm about the different ways the First Nations people could help the Whistler resort and vice versa.

Nault said this project is part of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada's economic development program. This year about $14.5 million has been approved to support 27 projects in B.C., he said.

"This is right up (the federal government's) alley, supporting the creation of First Nations economy," said Jacob.

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