A $63,000 portable sawmill is slated to arrive in the small harbour at Ahousaht by the end of November and its elected chief couldn’t be more excited, writes Sarah Douziech in the Westerly News.

“It’s something that excites me because it’s going to be able to contribute to our housing material needs and that’s one of the biggest issues we have right now,” John Frank says. But it’s a little bit more than that too, Frank adds. “A part of our independence is coming back.”

That small step has been hard-won for a First Nation that has been featured in the media recently for their housing crisis. In particular, mold growth and overcrowding of the band’s 110 existing homes, have been highlighted as major barriers to the community’s ability to prosper. Currently, 40 homes have over $60,000 worth of mold damage and are considered condemned in the community, and another 40 need major mold remediation work.

In 2008, the Clayoquot Forest Communities Program–a partnership between the Central Region Management Board and Ecotrust Canada–was asked to work with Ahousaht on a plan to deal with the housing issues.

The CFCP then met with the five Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations in Clayoquot Sound in May 2008 to hear exactly what their vision for Ahousaht was.
Satnam Manhas, forestry project manager with Ecotrust, says he got involved when the idea of a portable sawmill was proposed.

Manhas says the community needs to build 150 homes in the next five to 10 years and a sawmill could address that need while also creating jobs, providing education and training for workers and building capacity for the community to be self-sufficient over the long-term.

The community also aims to build eight-two unit condos. Twenty homes will require mold remediation work and another 30 will need new exterior siding by 2011.

Currently, a 15,000 square foot high school is being built on reserve and the First Nation just received $45,000 in funding to build a visitor centre for the Walk the Wildside Trail.

Frank says he sees the “circle of wealth” the mill will provide for the community not in terms of monetary gain, but in terms of improved health and self-esteem for Ahousaht people. “That [wood] resource is going to be able to look after us… like it used to before,” he says, “and once we gain that independence, I think it’s just going to shine evenmore.”

Manhas says the sawmill will also enable the community to cut wood products locally and have a strong sense of ownership over what they build. He uses the example of the school built in Hesquiaht. Local trees were harvested, milled locally and built by local people. “Everybody has a feel for that building, so you don’t see any vandalism,” Manhas says. “When you go to that community, there’s a sense of pride.”

The sawmill coming to Ahousaht is powered by electricity and Manhas says they had to work with an energy company to get a $23,000 micro-grid that could power it. They looked at powering it with diesel, but the cost would have been astronomical. Manhas says with the micro-grid it will cost $20 per day to power the mill when it’s running.

One thing Ecotrust learned alongside Hesquiaht with their two-year school-building project was the importance of developing a long-term business plan–something Manhas says is in place for Ahousaht. After the mill has been used to make house building materials, he says the community can use it to make “value-added” products like molding, paneling, doors and other finer interior wood products. It can even be used to provide wood for local carvers and artists, he adds.

The mill will employ about five people to start and could grow to employ about 17 when “value-added” products are added to its capacity.

Right now the community isn’t authorized to sell the wood they harvest commercially, but could potentially be in the future, Manhas says. “We’re looking at exterior markets over time so the mill can become viable,” he explains, adding that the harvested wood would equate to about 10 hectares per year.

Frank says Ecotrust has been instrumental in helping the band get back on their feet.

“I’m so tickled,” Frank says. “The picture just seems to be getting bigger and bigger as it’s coming closer and closer.”