The B.C. government announced its third agreement to recognize the rights and title of the Heiltsuk Nation at Bella Bella Friday, including a $22 million fund to develop the remote community’s economic development and cultural preservation.
The agreement includes support for an elders long-term care home project for the community of 2,500 people north of Bella Coola on the remote B.C. Central Coast. The B.C. NDP government is the first in Canada to fund housing projects on federally-controlled reserves.
The June 18 agreement is an incremental step to a rights and title settlement, similar to a treaty, that recognizes the Heiltsuk territorial claim to more than 35,000 square kilometres of land and sea. The federal government signed onto the process in 2019.
“I honestly think we have done something for the history books here today,” B.C. Indigenous Relations Minister Murray Rankin said at a video-conference ceremony hosted in Bella Bella June 18.
Bella Bella lies west of of Bella Coola, where Highway 20 west from Williams Lake is the nearest road access to the region. It has an airstrip and a dock where the B.C. Ferries Inside Passage run stops on its way from Port Hardy to Prince Rupert.
Marilyn Slett, the Heiltsuk elected chief, said the community and hereditary leaders have chosen housing, language preservation, marine and fisheries stewardship and economic development including a business plan for a lumber mill. The region is in the middle of what is now known as the Great Bear Rainforest, with extensive forest preservation included in two B.C. timber harvest zones.
“Through our vision of self-determination, we have worked hard to create an evolving, incremental path towards reconciliation,” Slett said. “This agreement is a major investment and step along that path, one that will create a better future for everybody.”
North Coast MLA Jennifer Rice said the step-by-step agreement is less costly and divisive than settling territorial claims in court, and “better than settler colonialism.”