Taking back Bamfield

Melissa Renwick, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, October 9, 2020

Justine Mack works at a gas bar in Anacla. With a eye to economic resurgence, in recent years the Huu-ay-aht have been developing properties around Bamfield. (Heather Thomson/Huu-ay-aht First Nations photo)

Bamfield, BC — 

When Huu-ay-aht First Nations Chief Councillor Robert J. Dennis Sr. thinks back to the ‘80s and ‘90s, he remembers Bamfield as a boomtown.

In those days, the motel was full; you’d have to drive around in circles to find a parking spot and it was near impossible to get a boat moorage, he recalled.

Trevor Cootes has similar memories. The then 20-year-old was stationed at the Pachena Bay Campground in 1998 and ruminates it as a time of great excitement – Bamfield “was very much full of energy,” he said.

Cootes eventually moved on to pursue guiding, the same time the notorious Alberta businessman Jack Purdy began buying key properties within the community.

When Cootes made his way back to Bamfield in 2012, he returned to a place that he no longer recognized. The once busy streets were empty, lodges were closed and buildings were crumbling. The silence was penetrating.

Like a ghost town, it was “dead quiet,” he said.

It was what locals now refer to as “the Purdy time,” or “the Purdy model.”

Purdy made great promises of investing into Bamfield’s economy, but development plans were never realized.

“I think Bamfield residents, as well as business owners in Bamfield, were definitely feeling very unsure about the future of the Bamfield economy with seeing such a drastic downturn,” said Cootes.

“The Purdy time” was heightened by the reduction of allowable catch for chinook salmon. Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans decreased the daily recreational limit from four salmon to two around 1990.

With the commercial and recreational fisheries down and nowhere for tourists to eat or sleep, the atmosphere was “very bleak and it was very quiet,” said Cootes.

At that time, the nation only owned the campground, the east government dock and a small gas bar in Pachena Bay.

Despite the unpredictable future of Bamfield, Huu-ay-aht First Nations continued to look forward, never doubting the territory that had always provided for them.

When they signed the Maa-nulth Final Agreement in 2011, the tides began to change. It meant that Huu-ay-aht First Nations was provided “decision-making power,” said Cootes.

“We needed to develop an economic model,” said Dennis. “I always looked at the Huu-ay-aht treaty as our economic plan. We had to increase the amount of financial resources we had, we had to create governance structures so that business models would be able to work in our territory and certainly, we had to have natural resource allocations, particularly in fishery. We had to develop our own model and make that model work.”

In 2015, Cootes was elected on council and was tasked with developing the nation’s economic portfolio.

When 11 “Purdy properties” went up for sale, the nation bought them as a package deal in January 2016. They included four key operations –The Bamfield Motel and The Kingfisher Lodge, Ostrom’s Lodge and an undeveloped airport.

Since then, the area has slowly come back to life.

“The vision for Huu-ay-aht is definitely an approach of having short, mid-term and long-term objectives on how we want to build a strong Huu-ay-aht economy,” said Cootes. “When these 11 parcels of land came to us, they immediately offered Huu-ay-aht more businesses, more revenue opportunity [and] more job opportunities for our citizens.”

Now, there is a job for everyone living in Anacla.

“We don’t have much of an unemployment rate at all,” said Cootes. “If anybody can work, they are working.”

With job opportunities in hospitality, Belinda Nookemus has returned to work on her homeland for the past three summers.

“It was exactly what my soul needed to be around – family and my home community,” she said. “It’s reassuring that in a split second you can do something you really love and always wanted to do and [the nation] will help get you there.”

While COVID-19 did disrupt Huu-ay-aht’s business operations and the Pachena Bay Campground remains closed, Cootes isn’t sweating.

He said that their business operations are financially stable and that the primary focus during the pandemic was the safety of their citizens.

Rather, as he thinks of the future, excitement radiates through his voice.

“We have very large control over our decisions and our destiny, “ said Cootes. “It’s a good place to be in.”

Recently, it was announced that the 90-kilometre logging road to Bamfield would be paved. Not only will the new road address long-standing safety issues, it will allow Huu-ay-aht to shift some of its reliance on resource development to tourism development, said Dennis.

Key to that is the Kiixin Village and Fortress National Historic Site of Canada. It is one of the few places on the B.C. coast where the original posts from longhouses still stand, said Cootes.

For the last three years, the nation has been offering free tours of the ancient village site as a pilot project. It is a stepping stone for Huu-ay-aht to incorporate their stories and culture into their tourism offerings.

“We were almost killed off at Kiixin,” said Cootes. “But we have a resiliency about us that keeps us afloat through our histories. Wars, famine – all these things have happened to Huu-ay-aht, but there’s always been this resilience of coming back.”

Cootes reflects on the past 15 years with the same spirit as his ancestors.

“We're at such a milestone, pivotal, significant time in Huu-ay-aht,” said Cootes. “It’s that resilience coming back again.