Big Reconciliation and Big Business.
The opening of a new chapter in north-central life also marked the closing of another. Tears and cheers were shared as economic development got a chance to dull the pain of past abuses at Fraser Lake.
Coastal GasLink is currently building its liquefied natural gas (LNG) pipeline across the northern landscape and when the company opened its latest work camp for the small army of construction workers, special attention was paid to the history of the location on which it now operates.
Lejac is an infamous place name in the history of Canadian crime, as well as local culture around the Omineca-Lakes District. It is where, for decades, Indigenous children from several First Nations were forcibly confined at a residential school far away from their families and home communities in an attempt to erase their Aboriginal identity.
It was also where physical, emotional and sexual abuse were repeatedly perpetrated over those years. The RCMP’s residential school task force of the 1990s and early 2000s had a red circle around Lejac, and of the 14 former residential school staff targeted for arrest in B.C., only one escaped. That was Edward Gerald Fitzgerald, who fled his 21 charges against 10 children. In 2002, he got away to Ireland which had no extradition treaty with Canada. Fitzgerald was a dormitory supervisor at Lejac (and also Williams Lake) in the 1960s and ‘70s.
The RCMP’s residential school task force had a red circle around Lejac.
The school was closed in 1976 and was partially razed by the federal government in the 1990s. This, too, added to the acrimonious relationship with the First Nations of the area: the Stellat’en situated a few kilometres to the west and the Nadleh Whut’en on whose territory Lejac was built.
It was discovered this past summer that the razing was actually incomplete, leaving hundreds of thousands of dollars in cleanup of the school’s foundations still just under the topsoil, and in order for the work camp to go ahead, the Nadleh Whut’en people opted to foot the bill themselves for full removal or have their economic future threatened.
“We, as Native people, have been kept on the outside looking in. This is an instance where we are part of the group that’s inside.”
It was just one more sliver of shoddy work done by the federal government, as pertains to the history of Lejac. It was galling to victims and Aboriginal leaders (not to mention RCMP) when Fitzgerald made good his escape to Ireland. An extradition treaty had been negotiated and agreed upon, but due only to a lack of French translation, had not been signed. As a result, Fitzgerald got clean away.
The spacious grounds of Lejac Residential School were once some of the most productive farmlands in the Nadleh Whut’en and Stellat’en region. It is near to where Simon Fraser set up the first post-contact cattle ranch and colonial-style farm in the history of what is now British Columbia. It was not a parcel of land the Nadleh wished to lose, but the land was unilaterally appropriated by the federal government early in the 20th century for the purpose of building the school. It was contested at the time and was never an extinguished claim, in the eyes of the Nadleh government, and only in the past few months has the federal government agreed to hear an appeal of the hundred-year-old issue.
It was not a parcel of land the Nadleh wished to lose.
The word Lejac is on the map and a lot of past material, so the people of Fraser Lake know that to an extent, they are stuck with it. It was named solely because of the school, as a colonial honour to Father J.M.J. (Jean-Marie) Lejac (also spelled Lejaig and Lejacq in prior documents), a missionary of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate Catholic order that founded the school at Stuart Lake in 1917 and moved it to Fraser Lake a few years later.
When Coastal GasLink decided on that site for the work camp, it was for practical and mutually agreeable reasons with the Nadleh Whut’en. A corner of the old Lejac site had been the spot for a smaller but similar work camp for the construction of the Endako Molybdenum Mine expansion from 2010-12. It was close to the Village of Fraser Lake. It was close to Prince George. It was right on the highway and railway, connected to power and other utilities. Many of the amenities of the first work camp were still in place.
The unhappy history of that name, though, was not lost on the Coastal GasLink team of companies and contractors. Through a long process of consultation, a new name was selected. The camp would be known as Little Rock Lake Lodge. Although picturesque Fraser Lake dominates the views from the camp and Highway 16 alongside it, Little Rock Lake is close by and carries none of the tragic baggage of Lejac.
“When Coastal GasLink started this project six or seven years ago, the most important thing to the overall success of this project was having strong, positive relationships with the Indigenous communities that we work with,” said Tiffany Murray, Director of Indigenous Relations & Communications for Coastal GasLink on the day the ribbon was cut to open the new facility.
“If we act responsibly on their land, act as guests, they will invite us back with open arms.”
Pat Hammerschmidt, Vice-President of Aboriginal Community Relations for Horizon North Logistics (working with Falcon Camp Services to establish and operate the facility), said he was already fondly acquainted with this site.
“I was part of the grand opening back in 2010,” for the mine project’s camp of 400 people for two years, “and it does tell me that if we act responsibly on their land, act as guests, that they will invite us back with open arms, and they have.”
Nadleh Whut’en Chief Larry Nooski said the camp constructed for the Endako Molybdenum Mine was a crucial step for the economic sustainability of his First Nation. This new and much larger camp for Coastal GasLink was an extension of the lessons learned from that experience. Many safety and social responsibility components were built into the new facility thanks to past experience.
It also couldn’t have come at a better time, he added, with downturns in the forestry and molybdenum industries hurting the overall region’s bottom line.
“We do need the economic boost this camp is providing,” Nooski said.
That sentiment was echoed by Fraser Lake Mayor Sarrah Storey, who also stressed the importance of industry’s obligations to First Nations from the point of view of non-Aboriginal communities. She wept, along with many others in the room, as the history of Lejac was explained at the opening ceremonies.
“From the bottom of my heart, I feel for the people who went to school here. They were raised not the right way,” Storey said.
“I can’t imagine being taken away from my family. I can’t imagine my children being taken away. It’s not an easy thing to look back on. I can’t imagine it was an easy thing for the elders to go through (to hear the history discussed at the event). It is important to recognize the past, it’s important to look forward to the future, and our three communities have been doing just that. We really do work well together. We really do see the benefit of working together, and the economic development that comes from that.”
“We do need the economic boost this camp is providing.”
The small businesses, restaurants, hotels, and other elements of the village economy were bracing for a significant upswing, Storey said, and they, too, have learned lessons from the mining camp when it was in operation.
A lot of living conditions were built into Little Rock Lake Lodge to ensure a smooth co-existence between the resident community and the camp community only a few kilometres apart from each other. She said no undue burdens on the Fraser Lake RCMP detachment, medical services, or other civil infrastructure were expected.
The camp is already home to more than 100 people, and that number will swell to more than 700 in spring.
Stellat’en Chief Archie Patrick is a survivor of the Lejac Residential School and despite very real anguish that still exists today over that place and its role in modern history, he was nonetheless pleased to see the opening of Little Rock Lake Lodge.
“This grand opening signifies a really major historical event, or series of events, that Carrier and Sekani people are experiencing,” he said. “We, as native people, have been kept on the outside looking in. This is an instance where we are part of the group that’s inside. And this is just the beginning.”
“There is a special anger, warlike,” for colonial governments, Patrick said, but proactive agreements with the Province of British Columbia in recent years, and private sector partnerships like this one are “the beginning of that process” of true reconciliation.
“It is symbolic of great things to come in this part of the world.”
Frank Peebles is a veteran magazine and newspaper journalist based in Prince George. He has won numerous awards for his work, including Canadian Community Newspaper Association and BC-Yukon Community Newspaper Association citations.
- This piece is a followup from Frank Peebles’ debut story for The Orca: Lejac, back from the grave.
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