The remote village of Kincolith in northern British Columbia is about to change. After decades of discussion and a lengthy environmental assessment, construction of a two-lane highway was approved by both the provincial and federal governments in late 1999, and the construction crew has recently begun preliminary clearing and scrubbing on the site.
The highway will change how people travel to and from Kincolith. Currently, the only means of transportation are passenger ferry and sea plane. They are not only costly-round trip ferry fare costs $70, while travelling by sea plane costs twice that-but also dangerous, especially in the rough winter months.
Economic development officer Alvin E. Nelson said deaths over the years from these means of transportation have had an incredible impact on his community.
"Years ago, one of our chief councillors was traveling from Prince Rupert and perished on the way up here," recalled Nelson. "To this day, nobody knows where his boat went down."
On Aug. 5, 1998, as Nisga'a people celebrated their historic treaty with the government of Canada, news arrived that a sea plane had crashed just outside of Kincolith, killing all five passengers, including a nine-year-old boy and his mother.
The new highway, scheduled for completion in December 2003, will not only offer a considerably safer and less expensive way to reach Kincolith for the 300 residents, it also promises substantial economic and cultural benefits.
"The economy will expand at least two-fold," estimated Neil Okabe, general manager of Gingolx Development Corporation, who is involved in the construction. The project calls for 35 per cent local hiring and is expected to increase tourism and trade.
"A lot of people will come out to this area to see what it's really like," said Okabe. "There's excellent fishing here, so you'll see a lot of sports fishermen throwing their boats onto their trailers and hauling them all the way to Kincolith."
The 14-mile highway will link Kincolith to other Nisga'a communities as well as the provincial highway system. For children, this also means easier access to secondary education. Kincolith only has elementary schools and children above Grade 8 have to attend school in New Aiyansh, some 75 kilometres away.
"Some of [the children] will probably commute, some will still use the group homes," said Nelson, "but parents can get out and visit their children more often."
However, some concerns have been raised about the social and environmental impact of a new highway to a community, which so far has been well-protected from outsiders.
"A lot of people were saying that [the highway] takes away the serenity we enjoy," said Nelson, "especially seedy characters that will come with the highway." But in the end the potential benefits seem to have outweighed potential harms.
The BC Environmental Assessment Office's project assessment director Ray Crook recalls a unanimous desire by the Nisga'a to get Kincolith to wheel access.
"It was quite an unusual situation," said Crook, "[The Nisga'a] were really anxious to get Kincolith hooked up." Crook said he was aware of concerns being expressed within Kincolith, "but the Nisga'a had their own internal community decision on it. The external position was always unified." Along with the recommendation to approve the highway, the assessment office also required a number of mitigation plans to protect grizzly bear and fish habitats in the region.
One of the immediate benefits of the highway is increased tourism in the remote village. Okabe said a cultural longhouse centre is in the works that will provide opportunity to practice Nisga'a culture-like the Totem Pole Project.
The Totem Pole Project was the first time since the incorporation of the village that a totem pole was carved and raised in Kincolith. Missionaries banned totem poles and only allowed uncarved poles to be raised to signify the chiefs' rankings. Master carver Chester Moore said the poject is part of a larger attempt to educate the younger generation about Nisga'a traditions.
"There are four tribes in our village," said Moore, "and we don't inter-marry," meaning villagers aren't supposed to marry people in their own tribes, only with members of other tribes. "That's one of the things the children are learning by participating in the project."
Thirty-five students, Grades 6 to 8, worked a few hours a day with Moore, who taught them how to prepare the wood for carving, do scale drawings of the design, and use various tools to carve the pole.
On June 23, the pole was raised in a traditional ceremony involving all children in the Nass Valley and the entire Nisga'a community.
Nelson, whose two grandchildren are involved in the project, said it brings him endless joy to see the kids immersed in traditional culture.
"To experience your own culture like this empowers individuals to step forward and get involved and be proud of themselves. I feel so satisfied," said Nelson. "[Especially] for myself and a lot of other people who had to go to residential school, be told not to speak our language and punished for practising traditions in our culture."
For more on the Totem Pole Project, including the stories that go with the different sections of the pole, visit the Web site at www.gingolx.ca.