Newly elected chief for Burns Lake Band

Sam has been a long-serving elected councillor

Wes Sam new chief

The Ts’il Kaz Koh (TKK) First Nation, also known as the Burns Lake Band has a new chief, but a familiar one.

The Burns Lake-based Indigenous nation went to the polls Dec. 19 in a by-election to select their top councillor.

The list of candidates heading into the election were, alphabetically: Rick Favelle, Wesley Sam, and Barry Tibbett. After the 84 ballots were cast, the choice was not a close one. Wesley Sam prevailed with a total of 53 votes to Favelle’s 22 and Tibbett’s eight.

It is Sam’s second time as Ts’il Kaz Koh chief, and in fact the second time he has won the position in by-election fashion. He has also been a long-serving elected councillor.

“It was eight or 10 years ago, I ran that term out, which was a little over a year, but at that time I decided I wanted to do economic development more, so I didn’t run again,” Sam said. “Since that time I’ve gotten a lot projects and experience, a lot of economic development learning, the school of hard knocks, and I want to apply this. It’s about bringing it back home.”

He drew up five points he based his chief’s campaign on.

– Work with the TKK community on designing a custom election code, because potentially more could be at the table, and how long should each mandate be?

– Establish a code of ethics to apply to the governance personnel of TKK – chief, council, employees – as a behavioural contract for doing business with and for the members.

– Draw on the membership and other knowledge-holders to convey cultural teachings, so the TKK way of life can be embedded in future generations, including the broader Lakes District residents. They are a bridge culture between Wet’suwet’en and Dakelh, so theirs is a unique history.

– Separate the political structures of the TKK Nation from their economic development structures, a border between government and business. This would shield against corruption or incompetence, and also “anyone thinking of doing business with Ts’il Kaz Koh wants to ensure that it’s stable, that the deal doesn’t change when the next chief and council come in.”

– Negotiate a solid new lease agreement with Hampton Forest Products. The ownership company of Babine Forest Products and Decker Lake Forest Products has been the single largest direct employer in the region over the past several decades, and even bigger when the indirect is counted as well. Their mills are situated on TKK land, with a 50-year lease that was not necessarily negotiated in the best interests of the nation. They are in year 49 of that agreement.

Both parties are well aware of this and understand it is of great economic importance for both sides to thrive under the next deal, but it will be a new deal.

“I will want to hit the ground running, on that, with the team,” Sam said. “It’s not just our nation looking for assurance and assurity on these negotiations, it’s the whole town, so it’s very important to have a stable Ts’il Kaz Koh government and economic development plan, to, one, not lose this opportunity that has been here for 50 years but, two, to see how we can continue to move forward in a better, more fair way.”

There is about 1.5 years left in the current TKK mandate before the next election is held. This time he will run again.

“Absolutely,” he confirmed. “Membership will grade me at that point, and I hope I pass that grade.”

He plans to ramp up government transparency and invigorate involvement from the membership. They asked for more involvement, he said, and he wants the help. He is excited by the grassroots engagement.

“The winners will be the Ts’il Kaz Koh Nation and Burns Lake itself,” he said. “We are quite intertwined with Burns Lake proper, as it is. Our success is theirs.”

Sam is not sure how the relations are between the eight governance entities of the Lakes District, those being the six regional First Nations, the Village of Burns Lake and the Regional District of Bulkley Nechako (nine, if you count School District 91). He senses the ties are strong, based on the community’s fortunes during these recent years of economic trouble around the world.

“When the economy fell, this town still managed to keep both its main grocery stores open, all its gas stations and restaurants up and running, and I attribute that to all the government dollars that the six nations are bringing in. It’s in the tens of millions that keep this town afloat in hard times, that’s just a fact. There is quite a benefit to having a First Nation as a neighbour and a partner.”

All local residents are talking about the same central concern, economically. Diversity is needed in the region’s revenues. The pipeline construction will soon end, and forestry’s fortunes fluctuate.

So what can be done to augment that? Sam sees a food security deficit, as well, and boosting that could also have a positive economic effect. Agriculture, manufacturing, warehousing…there are opportunities due to cheap land prices relative to coastal spaces, and the presence of transportation lines via road and rail, and ever improving communications infrastructure.

On the other hand, cheaper land also makes it harder to raise capital with traditional lenders, Sam said, because collateral is weaker. It will take dedication and sound planning to climb all these stairs. Sam feels he is in a position in his life to apply his own dedication and planning efforts to his community – Indigenous and beyond.

“I’m open, this nation is open, to any industry if they are environmentally sound,” he said. “We have an open ear to talk things out.”

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