It was a somber day on Saturday, July 9, as the Gwa’sala-’Nakwaxda’xw First Nation (GNN) officially broke ground at the site of its Gukwdzi (Bighouse) project on the Tsulquate Reserve.
The Gukwdzi Project has been made possible due in part to the funding contribution of $8.9 million from the Government of Canada’s Cultural Spaces in Indigenous Communities Program.
GNN has been without a culturally-centered space ever since their forcible relocation to the Tsulquate Reserve more than 50 years ago.
The reason for the groundbreaking being a somber one was due to Hereditary Chief Hiłamas “TK” Henderson recently passing away, and everyone attending the event took a moment to fondly remember him while they spoke about the start of the Bighouse project and what it will mean for the nation.
“TK had a lot to do with the work we’re doing today,” said GNN Councillor Gary Walkus, who was the master of ceremonies at the groundbreaking, “and his heart definitely would have wanted us to carry on. He was a man of knowledge, everything, and he had the biggest heart a person could ever have. He led a special life, for sure.”
Gary then called for a moment of silence to remember Henderson and another Elder who had recently passed away in the community, before inviting his father, Hereditary Chief Paddy Walkus (who served as GNN’s elected chief for over 40 years), to speak.
Paddy welcomed the honoured guests who were attending the event, Marc Miller, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Affairs, Chief Commissioner Celeste Haldane of the BC Treaty Commission, and North Island MLA Michele Babchuk (who was representing on behalf of Minister Murray Rankin).
“We raise our hands to you for coming to our humble community,” Paddy said, and then acknowledged the traditional territory of the Kwakiutl First Nation that the District of Port Hardy and the Tsulquate Reserve is situated on.
He then talked briefly about Henderson, stating, “Any of you who had the privilege and honour of meeting TK would appreciate what he had to contribute, he blessed the logs for the Bighouse many months ago.”
Paddy added he also wanted to thank everyone who has contributed in any way to helping the nation realize their dream of having their own Bighouse again, “where we will perform our sacred ceremonies.”
After a brief song from Charles Willie, the groundbreaking officially commenced at the site of the future Bighouse, and then GNN Councillor Darryl Coon was handed the microphone.
Coon thanked everyone for attending and said it’s “a huge day for the Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw people … it’s been 50 years since we’ve had our house, and today’s going to be a new day for our people.”
He spoke briefly about their history, how they are actually two nations who had been amalgated together by the government.
“We’ve been here since ‘64, and we will continue to be here once our house is done,” he said, stating it’s with a heavy heart that Henderson wasn’t able to be there to speak at the groundbreaking, “because this was something he always had a vision for.”
“All the suffering and trauma that we’ve endured, because we didn’t have our house, is now going to turn around as we are going to start identifying who we are when it comes to our culture and our language - it’s going to be a lot more easy for us to regain our identity as Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw,” added Coon.
Hereditary Chief Willie Walkus then spoke, thanking Miller for coming to share in the announcment of the Bighouse.
“This will be a joyful moment of our lives when it [Bighouse] starts opening,” he said.
Miller spoke after that, extending his condolences to the community for their loss, and then said he’s excited to see the finished project in two years, “because I know how hard you fought for this.”
He noted this is GNN’s victory, stating that “Canada is happy to be a small part of this” and then apologized for the government’s previous actions which caused so many issues that still affect Indigenous communities throughout the country to this day.
“The investment today on behalf of Canada of $8.9 million dollars, while significant, is only a small part of the puzzle in the struggle you’ve fought so hard and so patiently to celebrate here today,” he added.
Following the groundbreaking ceremony, GNN, Canada and British Columbia signed a new tripartite Memorandum Of Understanding, marking their united entry into Stage 5 of treaty negotiations.
This was the first ever Stage 5 memorandum to be signed in-person by all three levels of government.
“The MOU represents common hard-won understandings of the unique circumstances of our Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw Nations who in 1964 were forcibly relocated out of our homelands and onto another’s Douglas Treaty lands, and the challenge of BC and Canada to fully understand and agree on ways to address the tragic losses and history, while at the same time understand and support the strength of Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw Nations leadership to rebuild as self-determining nations,” said Colleen Hemphill (Tsax – tsa – ghay - dzemgha), Chief Negotiator for GNN, in a statement to media.
“The signing of this Memorandum of Understanding provides the foundation to move ahead on a treaty with the Gwa’sala-Nakwaxda’xw Nations based on their community priorities in a process jointly developed by the parties. By working together, we are developing new approaches towards reconciliation which will support the Gwa’sala-Nakwaxda’xw Nations in building a better future for their community and implementing their vision of self-determination for this generation and many to come,” added Miller.
- with files from Gwa’sala-’Nakwaxda’xw First Nation