In the News

Kwiakah Nation applies for a Nation Building Grant

When the Kwiakah Nation applied to the NRT for a Nation Building grant, they knew their unusual, two-pronged approach might give some funders pause. But both aspects of the Nation Building proposal were crucial to setting this small First Nation, located along the northeast coast of Vancouver Island, on its chosen path to self-determination: developing a constitution as part of their ongoing treaty negotiations, and completing a feasibility study for what could eventually become a regional seaweed cultivation industry and research hub.

Thanks to a newly-streamlined application process, and a strategic focus on supporting First Nations on achieving their own version of Nationhood—on their own terms—the New Relationship Trust wholeheartedly approved the funding proposal for both projects.

“They [NRT] had faith in us as a small Nation that we could do that work. Our proposal was judged on its merits,” says Frank Voelker, the Kwiakah Nation Band Manager. “I can’t tell you how good it feels.”

A constitution enshrining hereditary governance

Developing a constitution was a condition of the treaty negotiations the Kwiakah Nation had been engaged in since 1994 with the BC government, a treaty that will recognize and protect Kwiakah inherent title and rights, as well as harvesting and resource rights throughout its territory, among other provisions.

The Kwiakah Nation was determined that the treaty negotiations would not overshadow the development of one of the most important documents their community would ever produce. Nevertheless, the timeline of the negotiations did mean there was little time to waste, and the Kwiakah Nation worked with NRT staff to ensure the application and release of funds could be processed in time.

“They did a fantastic job getting it through quickly because of our time pressure,” reflects Voelker. “It set us up on a good path to self-government.”

Thanks to the funding provided, the Kwiakah Nation was able to hire a legal expert and engage nearly all of their community members in developing a constitution that reflects and enshrines the governance systems that had governed their people for millennia. 

The process generated a great deal of enthusiasm and excitement in the community.

“It’s key to engage the membership, especially with a constitution,” emphasizes Voelker. “It’s the highest law in the land. The beauty of a small community is that we had almost 100% participation, especially with tools like zoom. We had a committee that liaised with the community and it was really a great process seeing direct democracy at work.”

Crucially, embedded within the constitution is the Nation’s long-held hereditary governance system, one that has been maintained unbroken to this day.

“We made it really clear just because we are in treaty negotiations, we will not sacrifice our rights to determine how we govern ourselves,” explains Voelker. “We had to cement that in the constitution.”

Exploring the potential of seaweed farming

The second prong of the Kwiakah Nation’s vision of self-sufficiency involved a feasibility study for a coastal seaweed farm in the Nation’s territorial waters, an odd pairing that, Voelker admits, might have been a hard sell in any other context. 

“[NRT] have shown us so much flexibility,” he says. “When you look at the project, it was Nation-building; yes, a constitution is a good fit, [but] a seaweed cultivation feasibility study is a totally different end of the spectrum!”

And yet, this was no mere seaweed farm that was being proposed. If the feasibility study confirmed its viability, the Kwiakah Nation envisioned a project that would advance research into climate mitigation, restore coastal ecosystems and bring sustainable economic development founded on Indigenous principles to the entire region.

“It felt like the decision makers were taking a risk on our behalf and trusting us that this is the right project at the right time,” says Voelker.

In order to even begin pursuing those broader ambitions, however, a feasibility study confirming the project’s viability was essential to help the Nation direct their limited resources in a “very surgical, very strategic” way. 

“We are careful where we invest our energies,” says Voelker. “This study showed us how we can pursue this opportunity rather than just ‘spitballing’“… [that] this is really worthwhile to pursue not only in economic terms, but for research and territory welfare.”

A “Massive Multiplier”

Seaweed farms in remote areas are difficult to make profitable; start-up costs alone can make it difficult to get a project off the ground. However, a fish farm operator that had set up shop in Kwiakah’s traditional territory agreed to withdraw by summer of 2022, with the understanding that the operator would donate the fish farm infrastructure—docks, float houses and sheds, as well as a cage system—to the Kwiakah Nation. Having ready-made infrastructure in place would prove to be the catalyst for exploring the possibility of a seaweed farm in earnest, an idea that had been bandied about for years.

By housing their Guardian program at the same location, the Nation could also hire the Guardians for seeding and harvesting, and to monitor the seaweed as it matures, the few jobs required for a largely hands-off crop. ”It’s a new industry that won’t compete, job-wise, with fish farming or forestry,” explains Voelker. “It doesn’t need farm hands, just ocean, water and light.”

Eventually, they hope to seed a regional seaweed cultivation industry by providing pre-processing of wet kelp to reduce transportation costs in order to make the industry cost-effective for other remote operators. 

“And if two or three operators come together and bring their combined harvest now you really have a cost-effective way to run your operations,” explains Voelker. “Seaweed cultivation in remote areas can’t be done in isolation. You have to create an agricultural co-op. Nations have to work together, and based on the feasibility study we positioned ourselves as a thought-leader, researching and building the necessary network, joint fundraising—the objective is that everyone who wants to can join the network and benefit from the knowledge acquired.

“If we are successful in researching and defining ways to operate profitably, we are happy to share [our approach] with other Nations. It can turn into a massive multiplier and make it viable in areas where it’s not right now,” explains Voelker, “and do it in harmony with the environment—not harming the territory, but improving it.”

More than a crop: Kelp’s carbon capture and coastal restoration potential

Environmental benefits are a key part of the Nation’s vision for the project. Cognizant of the detrimental impacts of fish farming and having finally negotiated the withdrawal of the fish farm on its territory, the Nation wants to proceed cautiously, “so this new industry doesn’t become the new fish farm industry”.

In order to understand and maximize kelp’s potential, they knew they needed to form partnerships to study it. The Kwiakah Nation are in talks with research foundations and post-secondary institutions about setting up a research station to study the carbon sequestration potential of native kelp species. 

And by limiting the amounts harvested, the Kwiakah Nation aims to help restore coastal ecosystems degraded by logging. “Forestry and fish farming have harmed and destroyed our coast,” says Voelker. “Log storage in water has changed [the water’s] chemical composition. As a result, we are losing eelgrass, a key ecological species.” 

Restoring native kelp forests can help oxygenate and filter the coastal waters, reducing ocean acidification and restoring conditions for eelgrass growth as well as providing habitat for other native marine species. Cultivating native species—”not just those that are most lucrative”—is essential for this restoration.

An industry founded on Indigenous principles

The Kwiakah Nation wants to approach every aspect of the project using Indigenous principles and knowledge. 

“In the past seaweed was abundant in our inlet,” says Voelker. “We have to be careful to work with nature and augment here and there, rather than run the show. You have to know how far you can go. 

“There’s a lot of Indigenous participation and what I hope is that Indigenous people are taking over the process and building it on Indigenous principles. But how are we to do that if we don’t have our own facts? This is where the research component becomes so important; every Nation gives informed consent to enter the space and know that their territory won’t be harmed.”

To ensure these principles are embedded from the start, the Kwiakah Nation is negotiating with Ocean Wise to set up an industry standard for seaweed cultivation. “We are the second smallest band in BC, but anything happening with regards to seaweed has an Indigenous aspect. We want to set up an industry for change working with nature instead of against it,” says Voelker.

Once the feasibility study was complete, the Kwiakah Nation was able to secure funding for a business development plan and plans to launch operations as early as 2023.

“This is fairly new to us, and we need to learn; we are entering the apprenticeship period of the project,” muses Voelker. “As a research project, if we mess up the timing, we are not going to go bankrupt—that gives us three or four years to learn on the job.”

Visit our Nation Building Grants page to learn more about this program. 

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