For the Tla’amin Nation, the loss of their village site tiskʷat has been like “a missing limb” for the community, according to Dillon Johnson.
Their home and salmon fishing site was stolen and sold by “British Columbia” 151 years ago at a time when the community’s population was decimated by disease.
For the next seven generations, Tla’amin people were separated from tiskʷat. People were moved onto reserves, salmon runs were all but wiped out by construction of a new dam, and a paper mill began operating on the site.
“I’ve always heard the Elders speaking about it, how you know, that this is tiskʷat and our people lived there,” said Johnson, an executive council member for Tla’amin.
“The way I’ve always kind of felt about it, it’s like a missing limb of the Nation … It’s like a long lost relative that’s there that we want to reunite it with the family.”
Now, Tla’amin is set to reclaim tiskʷat after the Nation recently submitted a specific claim to “Canada,” signed an agreement with “B.C.,” and are in talks with its current owners, Catalyst, about buying the site back.
The journey towards getting tiskʷat back has been a multigenerational fight, stemming back to the time it was taken — and getting the land back would mean Tla’amin could once again steward this crucial arm of their territory.
An illegal sale
tiskʷat is an area of land around the “Powell” lake dam, and mill site. According to oral history, tiskʷat had one of the largest sockeye salmon runs besides the Stó:lō (the Fraser River). tiskʷat itself translates to “big river.”
Tla’amin is a self-governing First Nation located north of “Powell River” on the upper Sunshine Coast in the qathet Regional District.
Tla’amin territory stretches from the main village in Tišosem, to ʔagayqsən (Harwood Island), into toxʷnač (Okeover Inlet), including ƛaʔamɛn (Lund) and toqʷanan (Theodosia). The territory is filled with forests, rocky beaches, and an incredible amount of wildlife including eagles, black bears, and deer — to name a few.
Before colonization, tiskʷat was a village site and fishing ground of Tla’amin peoples, as shown in both written and oral history. During spawning season, there were once millions of salmon including pink, coho, sockeye and chum. Amid vibrant green forest, families from Tla’amin, Homalco, Klahoose, and K’ómoks — the four sister nations — would gather at this site to harvest fish.
Tla’amin Elder Elsie Paul remembered learning from her grandparents that the first missionaries who arrived in Tla’amin held mass at tiskʷat.
“There were little cabins there, thatʼs where people lived in when the first priest came and held the first mass right there,” she explained in an article on the Nation’s website. “It was such a beautiful river.”
In 1873, “Lot 450” which includes tiskʷat, was illegally sold by the Government of B.C. to a man named Robert Paterson “R.P.” Rithet, according to research done by historian Colin Osmond and the qathet Museum and Archives.
Osmond started working with Tla’amin in 2013 as an undergrad at Simon Fraser University and University of Saskatchewan Ethnohistory field school. He said he’s been a part of conversations about tiskʷat ever since.
“It’s very clear that in the oral history record, that tiskʷat was a super important site for fishing salmon, but also for gathering in the winter. It was one of these places where people from all over the coast came to harvest resources and live for parts of the year,” Osmond said in an interview.
“The oral history record is very substantial on that.”
While colonial governments saw the industrial potential of tiskʷat, Tla’amin leaders never consented to the sale and have been trying to get the village back since it was stolen. The qathet Museum and Archives website cites that Tla’amin chiefs had made several trips to “Victoria” asking the government and commissioners to stop the sale of the lot, but were not heard.
When reserve lands were being allocated by the federal government, Tla’amin leaders wanted tiskʷat to be included, but it was left out of the six reserves allocated by surveyors: Tišosem (Sliammon) IR 1, Hardwood Island IR 2, Kahkaykay IR 6, Paukeanum IR 3, Toquana IR 4, and Tokenatch IR 5.
In Osmond’s research he notes reserve commissioner Gilbert Malcom Sproat was actively advocating for Tla’amin lands to be surveyed, similarly, he got little to no response provincially or federally. Sproat was forced into retirement in 1880.
The province’s first superintendent of Indian Affairs, Israel Wood Powell, oversaw the sale of Lot 450 and the enactment of other violent policies including residential “schools” and the Potlatch Ban. There’s no record that he ever set foot on Tla’amin lands, but he became the namesake of “Powell River.”
In 1912, Powell River Company built a paper and pulp mill at tiskʷat that operated for more than 100 years. It later changed ownership to the company Catalyst. The “Powell” lake dam was finished construction in 1911 which meant the end of the once powerful salmon run at tiskʷat and the end to the forest and village that was used by the sister nations.
Osmond said there was also a province-wide commission around 1913, a year after the mill opened. When the commission reached Tla’amin, Osmond says there was no mention of tiskʷat, which he found strange considering the history before this time was all about tiskʷat.
“My theory is that one of the things that the mill owners promised when they asked the Tla’amin to move from tiskʷat to Tišosem, they promised that they would be given jobs at the mill,” Osmond said.
“So we see the oral history record, very detailed, documenting tiskʷat and not only tiskʷat but also this kind of grievance that ‘we did our part and we moved and we were supposed to get jobs and we didn’t.’”
He thinks that the lack of tiskʷat being in the commission is because Tla’amin didn’t want to jeopardize those jobs and economic benefit from the mill. Which Osmond said never really happened.
“I think we can guess that over time when that didn’t happen tiskʷat then became relevant and there’s a reason why it’s a big part of the oral history record because all those Elders made sure that they told their kids and their grandkids that this was the legacy of this place is that the government and the mill owners never lived up to their promises.”
Executive councillor Johnson explained that the removal of Tla’amin people from tiskʷat was like a “heist.”
“Powell and his cronies saw the industrial potential of tiskʷat and figured out a way to obstruct the creation of ‘tiskʷat the reserve’ for our people and instead sold it as ‘Lot 450’ and reaped the economics of our territory … it’s an injustice where everybody else prospered but Tla’amin,” Johnson said.
He explained that throughout the mill’s history, only a handful of Tla’amin folk worked there over the years.
“For the most part you know, it was non-Tla’amin folks working there, from 17 years old to retire at 60, get a nice gold watch, good pension, and you’ve got a nice house in town and a place on the lake and all this,” said Johnson.
“But for Tla’amin, it’s like we’ve been shut out and excluded from all that prosperity.”
‘We are pursuing the ownership of tiskʷat’
The tide started to turn in 2021, when the Nation received word that the Catalyst mill would be closing indefinitely, and the over 300-acre industrial site would go up for sale.
A few months earlier, Tla’amin and Catalyst had a ceremony at tiskʷat to change the site’s name to Catalyst Paper Excellence tiskʷat. This was the first time Tla’amin had a ceremony on the site in over 100 years.
“Our ancestors will rejoice to hear this place once again being called tiskʷat, and Tla’amin looks forward to the hard and productive conversations to come as we build a new relationship with Catalyst,” said Hegus John Hackett at the time.
Following suit in February of 2023, Tla’amin signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the owners of the dam adjacent to tiskʷat — Powell River Energy Inc., (Evolugen). The parties agreed to “work together to explore opportunities related to stewardship of Tla’amin territory” and other objectives — a key step towards restoring salmon runs.
Then, in October of 2023, Hackett and others from Tla’amin gathered at tiskʷat with Premier David Eby and provincial government officials to announce an agreement was signed as a commitment to jointly care for and steward tiskʷat.
A sacred fire was lit for the ancestors who called the original village site home.
“The injustice that was done, when the village site was taken, when the river was dammed and when the salmon disappeared, and when others took the economic benefit from that, leaving Tla’amin out and for generations to try to grapple with that loss was profoundly wrong,” Eby said.
“Our goal here today as the provincial government is to pledge to work in partnership with Tla’amin First Nation to address that wrong.”
With witnesses from the Nation, the two parties signed a MOU on Oct. 27, which included the province committing to work with Tla’amin to steward tiskʷat and address the environmental impacts of decades of industrial use. It also recognized Tla’amin’s long-term goal of owning tiskʷat.
“Yes, it feels good to say it out loud today — yes we are pursuing the ownership of tiskʷat,” Hackett said.
“It’s very important, even if we don’t acquire the site this time around, we will continue to show up for tiskʷat. We will work with B.C. and further other parties through this MOU to steward tiskʷat in a responsible fashion until the day we do repossess this site.”
Starting the specific claim process
The same month the agreement with the province was signed, the Tla’amin specific claim for the historic village site was accepted for formal negotiation by “Canada.”
Acceptance of the specific claim culminated many generations of fighting to reclaim tiskʷat, and Hackett stated he was “overcome with emotion” to start the process to finally get the site back, saying: “we are the generation that has the chance to correct this historic wrong.”
A specific claim is made by a First Nation towards the federal government over a piece of land that had been wrongfully taken by the Crown. With these claims, negotiations are held over a settlement fee, meaning that the government would pay the Nation as compensation for the time the First Nation went without that land.
“The specific claim, in a way, it’s always been a priority of leadership. Like they’ve always known, hey, that was our site and it should have been made a reserve,” said Johnson.
“Thankfully over the past five or six years, Canada has taken a better approach to specific claims and you know, while we still have some Elders that have the oral histories and know them really well, we thought with the land going up for sale, us trying to reclaim the land, positive changes made to the specific claim process… We said, let’s resubmit it.”
In August of 2009, Tla’amin had submitted a previous specific claim on tiskʷat. Johnson said that it was rejected by the Harper government because there “wasn’t enough evidence to accept it as a specific claim.”
However, under Tla’amin’s 2016 treaty, it states that the Nation can choose to pursue any claims that fall within the scope of “Canada’s” specific claims policy— naming tiskʷat as one of them.
The specific claim with “Canada” is monetary, meaning Tla’amin and the federal government would negotiate a settlement amount for the time Tla’amin went without access to tiskʷat. The claim does not impact Catalyst’s actual sale of the lot, who Tla’amin would still have to directly buy the site from.
Following Tla’amin’s resubmission of the claim, Johnson said they asked “Canada” to send officials out to the village to meet with Tla’amin Elders and leadership in April 2023. The federal government then notified Tla’amin of its acceptance of the claim in October 2023 and offered to begin negotiations.
He explained that, while the reclamation of tiskʷat is still in its early stages, some of the ideas Tla’amin have for the site include land-based aquaculture, clean fuels like hydrogen, housing potential in some areas, and forestry. The Nation has held several meetings with members and staff about tiskʷat, but before each meeting non-disclosure agreements are signed to protect sensitive information.
“We’ve got a bunch of experts that are advising us on this project, but if we can get it right, get the right plan, and the local community here supports it and (B.C. and) the feds support it, like it could really be transformative to this whole region and the Nation’s role within the region,” he said.
For Tla’amin Youth Ace Harry, reclaiming tiskʷat is a historic moment for her generation — and one that must be done carefully.
“tiskʷat to me means our, our salmon. It means having our river back and it means restoring the ecosystem of all that is in our backcountry, all of our mountainous territory and that is a huge amount of territory,” Harry said in an interview.
“And just thinking about climate change, you know, I think we really as a Nation and as a people need to be very careful about the way that we walk these next few steps forward because trading in those life, giving ecosystems for these industries that crash in less than 100 years, or around 100 years, like the mill did.”
Harry said she’s been talking with other Youth who all deeply value their ancestral connections to the land, and feels ultimately hopeful for tiskʷat’s future.
“But I think as far as our generation’s advantage and seeing clearly, is that our kids are going to have to grapple with directly the impacts of what we do with that site because that was home to one of the largest sockeye salmon runs on the entire west coast.”
The inability to steward tiskʷat has been a constant sore spot for Tla’amin leaders — for example, in January, the dam gates were suddenly opened after months of being closed on the lakeside, unleashing a massive rush of water into the river that would wipe out any salmon that would have spawned over the summertime. Reclaiming the site would mean Tla’amin would finally begin to regain control over how the site is managed.
Johnson said being involved in the reclamation of tiskʷat has been very meaningful to him, calling it some of the most important and exciting work he’s been involved with in his leadership career.
“I see so much potential, if we can get it right,” said Johnson.
He said that even looking back four or five years ago, the Nation getting the chance to own the mill site, reclaim tiskʷat, or even get a resolution didn’t seem possible in the near future.
“But here we are, we’ve managed to kind of position ourselves here where we have a path to getting the land back and we have this path for bringing resolution to this claim that’s been outstanding for so many years,” Johnson said.
“It’s been pretty amazing seeing and hearing from our membership about what they feel about tiskʷat. I feel there’s a lot of pride being restored in our folks around tiskʷat … I feel like the ancestors have really been guiding this.”
By Abby Francis, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter