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Travel: Canada Day in Nisga'a Land

After a century of treaty negotiations the Nisga’a are making the most of their land and culture



Photography by Louise Christie

Imagine celebrating Canada Day in an independent nation surrounded on all sides by, well, Canada.

If you're first guess was la belle province, think again.

In 2000, after more than a century of negotiations, the Nisga'a signed the first modern day treaty - the Nisga'a Final Agreement - negotiated with the federal government. Since then, the Nisga'a Lisems government based in New Aiyansh has overseen four traditional villages whose 6,000 inhabitants occupy the heart of the Nass Valley.

Welcome to Nisag'a Land. The mighty Nass River flows through the valley as smoothly as molten lava did about 270 years ago in a fiery fit of volcanic eruption.

We spent much of Canada Day exploring the Nass - the anglicized term of Lisems - in the company of Kim Morrison, chief operating officer for Nisga'a Commercial Group Tourism, now in its second year of operations. Morrison, of Mohawk ancestry, was pleasantly surprised by the 150 per cent visitation increase over the past year, spurred in large part by school groups from as far afield as Toronto.

"Our staff have been working full time since May even though I thought they'd only be needed on weekends," the dynamo admitted.

"Last year was stepping off the edge for the Nisga'a after years of tourism feasibility studies. This job suits me because I'm all about living on the edge."

Presently, most visitors are drawn there to explore Nisga'a Memorial Lava Bed Provincial Park, also tongue-twistingly named Anhluut'ukwsim Laxmihl Angwinga'asanskwhl Nisga'a Provincial Park, on a 12-stop, self-guided auto tour. For Morrison, that's just the beginning.

"We're building three backcountry fly-in lodges on the Cambria Icefields in Nisga'a traditional territory near Stewart with a 36-kilometre trail system that leads through four different environments with bikers, hikers, paddlers, snowshoers and backcountry skiers in mind. The first will open by the end of next year with an all-Nisga'a staff."

In a frank bit of self-admission, Morrison said she herself doesn't plan to be around in five years.

"I want to work my way out of a job and have a Nisga'a in my place."

One person who has already worked his way into a leadership role within the new nation is hereditary chief and carver Alver Tait. When we visited Tait at his studio in the village of Laxgalts'ap, or Greenville, he was in the midst of preparing the first of four dugout North Coast canoes to be launched by summer's end.

"My home is in New Aiyansh, but this village hired me to train eight apprentices in traditional carving techniques," the Order of British Columbia recipient said.

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