For the organizers of the joint venture partnership between the Kitselas First Nation and WestCoast Fishing Adventures (WCFA), it took a bit longer than expected to prove that their business plan is worthy of investment.
The partnership began optimistically in 2013 when the guiding company and the Kitselas, through their Kitselas Development Corporation, first bid for a number of Skeena River angling rod days put up by the provincial government.
One rod day equates to being able to take out one angling client for the whole day. They are highly prized licence allocations that become more valuable in free market bidding.
What the partnership offered was a model that fused the Kitselas Development Corporation’s identity as an economic force within the Kitselas First Nation with a Terrace company that has 20 years guiding experience and a desire to give something back to the First Nations culture.
It seemed the type of deal on which the modern principle of reconciliation is founded.
It just so happened that the areas allocated for the rod days fell on a stretch of the Skeena River within Kitselas traditional territory, including the Kitselas Canyon.
But the partnership was surprised to have the bid and application turned down by the provincial government and some of the reasons given struck them as odd in hindsight.
“They told us that the Kitselas didn’t have any history with steelhead guiding,” development corporation general manager Jim Dopson said of the rejection.
This seemed absurd, WCFA owner Gill McKean added. “Could you imagine this? That type of a statement that you can’t get rod days because First Nations have no prior history of guiding.”
“Steelhead was known as the saviour fish in the winter, because that was the winter food supply,” said Dopson, adding that historically his people have been capable when it comes to reading the river and leading fishing expeditions, if not as much in the modern commercial sense of guide outfitting.
It was in the wake of that disappointing setback that Dopson decided to bring the issue to the provincial government’s officials charged with negotiating the Kitselas land claims treaty.
Dopson and McKean retooled the application and reapplied last year, and found out recently that they were successful in getting 100 of 582 rod days allocated for the Upper Skeena.
“That’s why I got [the] treaty [negotiators] involved. I printed out all the registered owners, the guides, and I said, there isn’t one First Nation on there. I said, we gotta be the first,” said Dopson.
This request was parlayed into a letter of support for the application from the provincial Ministry of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation.
In the short term, other than sharing revenue from the guiding that McKean does through his business, the joint venture is built on training aboriginals to become guides.
“We want our people to learn the skills so they can take over the business from Gill when he is ready to exit. That is the long-term plan. The short term is to get people into the industry, get them interested, build up the labour pool,” said Dopson.
McKean began the training program last spring, training up three people, one of whom is now going to be a guide and another one who has the potential to become a professional too.
The vision is that McKean, when he retires from the business, might sell his company to the Kitselas so they can be the owners and operators.
“I think it is important for the health of their culture and their people and it’s really much bigger than just Kitselas,” said McKean.
Kitselas chief councillor Joe Bevan said that he was happy to hear about the successful bid but also said thinks 100 rod days should only be viewed as the beginning for the Kitselas.
“It always seems that you get forty or sixty per cent of what you need,” said Bevan. “I think it would be better if we went forward with an analysis of how many days we do need to make a decent business out of it. We are happy with what we got, but we definitely want more.”
“They’re down in the U.S. selling these rod days,” he said of local angling marketing. “That’s where you go to sell those days and promote cultural tours.”