There’s nothing terribly daunting or complicated about solving entrenched poverty and social issues in First Nations communities, if you ask Jerry Asp.
“It’s very simple,” he said in an interview this week at the Yukon First Nations Resource Conference in Whitehorse.
“You need four things. You need a vision, a strategy, a vehicle to move your strategy forward and you need a champion – somebody who will take the flak, usually political leadership.”
Asp is a businessman, hard-nosed and unapologetic. When he talks social and economic development, people listen.
It’s for good reason. Tuesday afternoon he shared his story of taking the Tahltan nation of northern B.C. from 98 per cent unemployment in 1991 to zero in 2006.
It all started with an off-hand comment in 1985 to former Tahltan chief Ivan Quock about plans to build new housing on reserve.
“Just out of the blue, I said to him, ‘Why don’t we start a company and build those homes ourself?’” Asp said in his presentation.
And so, the Tahltan Nation Development Corporation was founded.
It trained up members of the First Nations at the same time as it rebuilt the nation’s crumbling infrastructure.
Then, the development corporation set its sights on the mining industry.
The Tahltan drafted a resource development policy in 1987, calling for jobs, social and economic benefits, contracting opportunities and equity participation in mining projects within the traditional territory.
And they were serious.
That was a lesson the owners of the Golden Bear mine project learned quickly in 1988.
“We had a nice little problem with them,” said Asp. “They were going to mine in our country, put a 100 mile road in there and take a bunch of equipment in. We were down negotiating with the company and they tried to sneak $1 million worth of construction equipment in through Telegraph Creek.”
The road in had never been designated as a highway, and properly belonged to the Tahltan, said Asp. So his sister and a few others got together and organized a roadblock.
“They took $1 million in equipment, and held it hostage right on the reserve.”
They used a high-profile aboriginal rights lawyer to get the RCMP off their back, but negotiations were still going nowhere, said Asp.
So on a Wednesday he called up CHON-FM in Whitehorse and announced that on Saturday morning the equipment would be auctioned off to the Tahltan people.
“By Friday afternoon I had a deal with Golden Bear,” said Asp.
It was the first First Nations mining participation agreement in B.C., and only the fourth in Canada.
From there, it was off to the races. The development corporation entered into joint ventures with various companies on mining projects through the 1990s and 2000s.
The corporation received more than $250 million in contracts from 1991-2008 from the Eskay Creek mine alone.
The company has diversified into hydro power and transmission projects, and has entered into a clean agreement with the B.C. government worth $2.5 million a year for 60 years.
“That company that started with an idea is now worth $50 million,” said Asp.
“If the Tahltans can take their community from 98 per cent unemployment to zero, any aboriginal community can do it. Nothing special.
What’s holding some other First Nations back?
“They still believe in Indian Affairs,” said Asp. “When I was the chief, I said it then and I’ll say it today, all you’re doing is administering your own poverty. There’s not one program in Indian Affairs designed to get you out of the mess you’re in, that they put you in. Not one.”
It’s about being pro-development, and about First Nations being a part of that conversation, he said.
“Let me be a part of the decision-making. I can’t be a nameless number on a list that gets misplaced.
“If we follow a strict environmental path, and oppose hydro, mining, pipelines, logging, even ski resorts, what options are left for our people? In my opinion not very many. Prostitution, drug dealing, bootlegging, begging, stealing, and of course welfare.”
Contact Jacqueline Ronson at