The provincial government is dangling a big carrot before First Nation communities in an effort to get them to finalize a treaty.
At a gathering last Friday to celebrate the connection of four St'at'imc communities to the power grid, B.C. Aboriginal Affairs Minister Barry Penner said that $24 million is available to upgrade a forest service road that serves as their only connection to northern and southern mainlands.
The catch is that the communities have to accept a treaty that will essentially incorporate them in law as a nation all their own, flying under the flag of the In-SHUCK-ch Nation.
"Through the Treaty process, the government has made a commitment to upgrade that existing roadway, to what I'm told would be the highest standard for a Forest Service Road, estimated at $24 million in value," Penner said in an interview. "That would go a long way to improving access and access is very important."
The road itself is 160 kilometres long, stretching from just east of Mount Currie in the north, going around Lillooet Lake and then proceeding all the way down to the Fraser Valley in the south.
It consists of the In-SHUCK-ch Forest Service Road, which stretches from Mount Currie to the northern tip of Harrison Lake; the Harrison West Forest Service Road, which spans the length of Harrison Lake; and the Morris Valley Road, which connects it to the community of Harrison Mills.
Once completed, the road would provide a "circle route" connecting the Fraser Valley with an access route to Pemberton, Whistler, Squamish, Vancouver and back again. The government has looked at establishing such a route for as long as eight years, when it wondered how people would get to Whistler for the Olympics.
At the time, Penner raised the possibility of upgrading that road to become the "Sasquatch Highway," an alternate route to Whistler, but the province ultimately opted to upgrade the Sea to Sky Highway.
A June 2010 report from Crane Management Consultants, prepared for the B.C. Ministry of Forests and Range, pegs the cost of the highway at $31 million - an amount that's $7 million higher than the province is willing to give, and an amount that Penner admitted he'd never heard before.
"It was an issue that was brought up during the treaty process by the In-SHUCK-ch negotiators, something they would like to see as part of the treaty," he said. "There are benefits that come with signing a treaty and it's for the members to decide if that's a benefit they feel is something they want to support."
Beyond being a benefit for members, the road could also serve as an access point to various tourism- and resource-related activities that could eventually take place in the region.
Among other things, some vein-type gold mineralization has been discovered around Harrison Lake. Meanwhile Toronto-based Wallbridge Mining Company has an active exploration program on a property at Rogers Creek, carrying out an initial three-hole drill program seeking copper-gold-molybdenum mineralization.
Gerard Peters, the chief negotiator pushing for an In-SHUCK-ch Treaty, stressed at the gathering that Penner, MP Chuck Strahl and various others took a journey along the road some years ago to survey its condition. The communities are still waiting on improvements.
"Those of us who thump up and down that road, going about our daily business, I think, have also got to be aware that there is the need to pay attention to that infrastructure as well," Peters said.
Clarke Smith thinks they shouldn't hold their breath. A hereditary chief of the Samahquam First Nation, one of the communities that's subject to the negotiations, he said the treaty is close to collapse after the Xa'xtsa (Douglas) First Nation withdrew from it last January - the second band after N'Quatqua to do so since In-SHUCK-ch entered negotiations in 1993.
"Most of us in Samahquam, we don't recognize In-SHUCK-ch," he said in an interview. "We don't accept that In-SHUCK-ch has any traditional territories in our area. We're all St'at'imc tribe."
Asked how the road could be fixed without a treaty, Smith said that should be left up to resource industries operating within the St'at'imc traditional territory.
"Everybody that worked in that area, without question, they always looked after the roads first," he said. "When (forest company) Canfor was there, that road was like a freeway. That's how they kept it, that's how they managed the roads."