Parlaying Success in Timber into Economic Engine

By Anna Guy

Loggers for millennia, the Lax Kw’alaams Band’s big risk on the Skeena Cellulose timber rights has paid off, spurring an economic engine that helps define the Nation today.

It was 2001. The Prince Rupert, BC, region was experiencing a major downturn in the forestry industry. The city’s main employer—pulp and sawmilling giant Skeena Cellulose—shut down its operations. Unemployment rates in the First Nation were over 50 per cent.

In 2005, the Lax Kw’alaams bought the timber rights during its bankruptcy sale. Fast-forward to 2019, and the $4.8 million investment has turned the community’s company, Coast Tsimshian Resources (CTR), into the main forestry company in the region, subsequently creating multiple successful ventures for the Lax Kw’alaams Band.

To seize the opportunities for Lax Kw’alaams, and to enhance the opportunities and quality of life for all members of the Band, the Lax Kw’alaams Business Development LP (LKBD) was formed in 2016. A blueprint for the success of similar Business Development arms of its kind, the LKBD oversees eight Band-owned businesses.

“Lax Kw’alaams has been involved in forestry management and harvesting activities for thousands of years,” says Carl Sampson, Director of Business and Employment for LKBD. “In more modern times, Lax Kw’alaams has had a very active on-reserve forestry operation throughout the 80s and 90s. When the Forest economy started experience the economic decline and the closures of Pulp, Paper and Sawmills throughout the Province, our operations took a hit as a result.”

The decision to buy the Forest Licences was “very brave,” says Sampson. At the time, the Band was struggling financially, and crisis seemed to be around every corner in the community. “It was a desperate move to find a way to turn things around socially, economically, and politically.”

Long-Standing Partnerships
The success of Coast Tsimshian Resources is a testament to the the resiliency of the Band and its members and their ability to forge long-standing partnerships with other businesses and stakeholders in the area, “as well as the ability to maneuver through the political landscape whether dealing with the Provincial Government, or other First Nations whose territories our licenses overlap with,” says Sampson.

The success of the CTR has allowed the LKDB to diversify into other areas of business where it has strong equity holdings; it has also allowed them to begin acquiring large capital assets, and provided the opportunity to put money back into the community.

“Fuel our Ability”
“What this has done for the community of Lax Kw’alaams is provide greater hope for a future where own-source revenues fuel our ability to be independent, to grow, and to continue to enhance the quality of life of our members,” says Sampson. 80 per cent of LKBD employees are Band members and under the age of 40, which shines a very positive light into the future for the Lax Kw’alaams social and economic interests.

“Lax Kw’alaams is also 50 per cent owner in Coast Tsimshian Enterprises where we have at least 20 joint ventures and limited partnerships,” continues Sampson. “This allows us to provide services ranging from Medical Services, Security, General Construction, Civil Works, Electrical, Control Systems, Drilling and Blasting, Work Camps, Crane & Heavy Haul and Modular Office Rentals. The list is quite extensive. These partnerships typically perform work throughout the Prince Rupert Port and the various Port facilities and proposed developments within our Traditional Territories.”

Other ventures include the Coast Tsimshian Fish Plant, which received a major renovation and upgrade in 2012, making it the most modern fish processing plant on the Coast of British Columbia. While the plant historically had been managed with the help of third-party operators, it developed a reputation of being unreliable due to constant start-ups and shut-downs. Once the renovations were complete, Lax Kw’alaams Band took the business into its own hands.

“Part of the strategy was to shift our focus from traditional Salmon processing, to a focus on groundfish which allows us to keep the Plant open and processing almost year-round,” says Sampson. “This strategy shift has proven to be quite successful for our operations. We have also invested in and own a trawler vessel called the Freeport and are 62.5 per cent owners in another trawler vessel called the Nucleus.”

These vessels are the primary source of groundfish for the processing operations. The Coast Tsimshian Fish Plant will employ anywhere from 70 up to 120 members throughout the season. There are both financial and social benefits that the plant brings to the community. Sampson expresses this best by saying, “Providing members with a source of income and stable work has a net positive impact on a person’s outlook and perspective in life.”

Community Engagement
Coast Tsimshian Northern Contractors Alliance is another exemplary business under LKBD, formed in partnership between Lax Kw’alaams Band, Metlakatla First Nation and IDL Projects. With $45 million worth of completed construction projects since 2017 and a very successful on the job training program, this partnership helps members get into Rock Truck or Heavy Equipment Operator positions.

To continually gauge the training needs and employment statistics for its membership, LKBD is launching a community census in 2019 which will allow for programs to be created based on immediate need. To further engage the community, LKBD hosts an annual career fair and utilizes an employment and training database to assist with job placements. Its success is in the numbers: in 2018, 96 band members were placed into positions through companies like CTNCA, Raymont Logistics and Gat Leedm Logistics. 2019 is already in high gear, with new business in the pipeline that includes a $90 million road construction project with the Prince Rupert Port Authority.

Sampson says LKBD is sought out regularly by companies or organizations looking to do business in our Territory and for general partnerships. Going forward, the LKBD is set on ensuring its members are best positioned to take on every opportunity they choose. “We have had a lot of success in our Training and Employment initiatives the last few years. We try our best to make sure our members (not membership) are prepared for the opportunities that we can see coming.”