Chilcoten Adventure

Last week my father and I went on an adventure into the Chilcoten, the region West of the Cariboo, North of Whistler which stretches between Fraser Canyon and the Pacific Ocean. I’ve been meaning to visit this region for years, but various other commitments have always taken priority.

The area is a real backwater – there hardly any traffic on the highway as you cross the Fraser River, despite being only a few minutes from the relative metropolis of Williams Lake. As you continue past the Williams  Lake “Loran C” station the ground is covered in rocks – remnants of violent volcano activity in the region’s past.

There is little industry in the Chilcoten – the few sawmills (one of which my father did a fair bit of work on) are not currently operating, although there is talk of getting the mill at Hanceville back open, cutting metric timber for the Chinese market.

At Riskie Creek we took a detour south to Farwel Canyon. This road is effectively a back road off a back road – truly the back of beyond. The only vehicles we saw were fire personnel. We spent the night at an abandoned homestead on the road between Farwel Canyon and Big Creek Junction. Although we carefully parked our car out of sight of the road, this was unnecessary as only one other car passed between the time we stopped and when we left the next morning.

If there is one place in the Chilcoten which feels on the upturn, it would be the town of Nimpo Lake. The town boasts several coffee shops, a good restaurant (“The Dean”), and (at least) two float plane services which offer tours and fly-in/fly-out service for hikers and visitors to Chris Czajkowski’s wilderness eco-tourism resort. If anyone’s interested, Chris’ establishment is for sale at the bargain price of $175k. The only downside is everything must come in and out only by float plane or on your back.

At the Western End of the Chilcoten is “the hill” aka Heckman Pass. Surely one of the most impressive and fightening pieces of road in the current British Columbia Highway Network, the Hill is an 18km descent out of Tweedsmuir park 1500 meters into the valley below, with grades of up to 18%. When we descended, it was 10 degrees warmer at the bottom of the hill than at the top – but astonishing thing is the completely different feel of everything – all of a sudden you are out of the Chilcoten, and in the coast region. The valley at the bottom is remarkably mild and rich – fruit trees grow profusely, and there are many farms.

Bella Coola is the end of the road. A town suspended in time, but certainly not a ghost town. We were impressed by the friendliness of the people, and the sense that the native community is on the upswing. At the warf there is a cannery, similar to the Gulf of Georgia Cannery. It is as if when the cannery was shut (in the 80s, probably), clover leaf simply walked away – the office still has a sign stating “direct inquiries to…”. There is no fence – no warning tape to prevent you from walking out to the old cannery building. Isn’t Clover Leaf worried about liability, if someone were to injure themselves on their old wharf? Where are the lawyers!

At the dock we met an old soul with a gorgeous old fish-packing boat. Built in 1939, it was (unlike most everything else at the dock), in pristine condition. While it still maintains a fisheries license, it is currently being used to ship jade from ocean side mining operations. The old Russian-Canadian who owned and ran it had no respect for bureaucrats – people with no experience and no willingness to stand behind their word, on his account.  By the look of his jewelry, he seems to have done ok.

On our way out of town the next day, we poked around a building project which looked suspiciously like shopping mall construction. It wasn’t – it was actually expansion of a band school, funded by Stimulus dollars. We met and spoke with Alvin Mack, who was working on painting designs above the front facade of the school. He spoke with ease and honesty about the violent history perpetrated against the Nuxalk nation, and repeated by the first nations community against itself. He actually carved a pole which stands in the centre of town which is called the “residential” pole – which serves to remind the community not only of the violence perpetrated against members of their community in residential schools, but of how that violence must no longer be repeated by the community against itself.

Alvin seemed to have a remarkable handle on the way perspective dominates and makes difficult the healing of first nations communities. Basically every attempt by the settlers to impose order on the Nuxalk in fact produced chaos. For instance, when chiefs from around the Beela Coola area were all brought to live in Bella Coola, and all given houses on the same street – this produced chaos. When the children were taken away and punished for speaking their language, chaos. When the parents were left behind, their childs taken away – chaos. When for forty years the violence of residential schools were denied by the authorities – chaos. And perhaps most observantly – when first nations communities are set up in individual family homes, so everyone lives in their own space, develops their own perspective – what does this do to the band council, to the community? Chaos – and this specifically reveals something very essential about the difficulty in western democracy – how to get people to think and work together, when lived experience is set up to promote the selfish ideal? Alvin understood the solution – rebuild the band school, teach the children the traditions and songs, and how to work together.

Our failed democracies could learn something from the successful rebuilding of first nations communities – we go around pretending we are the firm culture, and it is theirs which is in trauma. But in fact, the inability of liberal democracy to successfully deal with global warming and domestic poverty make it clear that there is nothing terribly strong about settler culture today. This isn’t to say it should be thrown out and replaced (although this is somehow an essentially western way of thinking about political problems), or maintain the status quo because of the danger of revolution (again – who thought this was a good way to formulate the problem?), but return and on the basis of the genuine and positive aspects of our cultural tradition, build a world which is adequate to our humanity. And as I often point out – that means addressing the central problem in democracy of small mindedness and the taking over of the system by factions. Examining these failures and attempts to overcome them in first nations band-democracy might shed light on the same problems in liberal democracy.


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