The Skawahlook First Nation in Agassiz, B.C. will not be able to expand trails in a local park — and it blames the B.C. government for pulling funds.
Up to a dozen Indigenous youth were set to begin several months of trail building starting in early November but because the funds are gone, so are the jobs.
It’s the latest fallout over the NDP government’s announcement in September to divert $25 million from the Rural Dividend Program (RDP) to a $69-million program to support forestry workers impacted by recent mill closures and cutbacks.
The Rural Dividend Program provides up to $25 million a year to help Indigenous and non-Indigenous rural communities diversify their economies.
Skawahlook was set to receive $100,000 from that fund for trail building in the Syéxw Chó:leqw Adventure Park.
“Not having those opportunities is always a detriment and, of course, not having work is not a good place to be either,” said Skawahlook First Nation managing director Sharron Young.
The seven-kilometre forested park including a children’s playground opened just over two years ago.
Young says the majority of work to build it was done by aboriginal youth.
She isn’t surprised that the Rural Dividend Program has lost its funding for now. When it comes to funding in indigenous communities, she said, it’s common to see it pulled.
“They’re ripping the Band-Aid off one wound and slapping it on another,” said Patrick Lucas, founder of the Aboriginal Youth Mountain Bike Program (AYMBP), which would have worked on the Syéxw Chó:leqw project and been paid from the fund.
No one disputes forestry workers need help, said Lucas, but in an ironic twist the government is actually taking funds from a program that regularly employs them too.
The young trailblazers of the Aboriginal mountain bike program need professional guidance on tree removal, and that comes from hiring forestry workers, he said.
Now the program has had to lay-off several of them.
“The government just made a knee-jerk decision and now communities that have been working for so long to build-up their sustainable economic foundation are left in the lurch,” said Lucas.
The Aboriginal Youth Mountain Bike Program submitted applications for a number of projects in at least six different communities around the province.
As it stands now, none of them are going forward any time soon, according to Lucas.
Applications will be retained
B.C. Liberal forests critic John Rustad says he’s heard the Rural Dividend Program may not be reinstated until 2021.
“When it’s not new money coming in and just repositioning money it creates more problems, I think, than it solves,” said Rustad of the government’s decision.
Forests minister Doug Donaldson declined an interview with CBC News
Ministry staff said in an email, the province knows the reallocation of funding is disappointing for many communities, but there has not been another industry in B.C. that has experienced significant job loss like forestry.
All applications that have been submitted to the Rural Dividend Program will be retained and considered when the program is once again up and running, said staff.
Looking to be self-sufficient
Indigenous communities are always looking for opportunities to be self-sufficient, said Young, of the Skawahlook First Nation — and, now the project to develop the park is stalled.
The park is a few hundred metres down the road from the band office on Lougheed Highway.
It’s supposed to eventually contribute to the small First Nation’s economic development by bringing visitors and tourists to the area.
“It will always be free for people, however, we’re hoping to attract people to our community,” said Young.
The long term plan is to make the playground and perhaps some of the trails in the park accessible to children with disabilities.
Young said Skawahlook First Nation will continue to look for other funding but for now it’s the end of the trail.
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