The Province

Indigenous drivers and the road to reconcilia­tion

- LUCY SAGER Lucy Sager is principal of the All Nations Driving Academy in Terrace.

‘Job applicant must have valid driver’s licence.” OK, no problem. Seventy-five per cent us in B.C. have a licence unless you’re a First Nations member.

Then the chances are dramatical­ly different. In many Indigenous communitie­s in B.C., the number of people with driver’s licences is well below 50 per cent. In some, as few as five per cent are licensed.

That means big trouble when it comes to getting work, even if the job does not actually require driving. (It’s common to find the helpwanted ad insists the applicant must have a licence even if they won’t drive on the job.)

It’s another barrier as First Nations people in B.C. seek employment and careers to earn money to improve lives and services in their communitie­s.

And there’s another problem in many Indigenous areas: getting to and from the job site if you have work. There’s no SkyTrain or TransLink in rural First Nations country.

I have run into a First Nations man who is a full-time heavy-equipment operator, with a job for which he does not need a driver’s licence. How does he get to that job? Regrettabl­y, he drives to and from his work in his car, unlicensed and thus uninsured.

He is torn between obeying the law and feeding his family.

Then came the go-ahead announceme­nt for LNG Canada and the Coastal GasLink pipeline that will feed it. The word quickly spread among First Nations people that most jobs would need a driver’s licence.

We heard stories like this, from a member of the Gitga’at Nation, southwest of Kitimat: ‘We couldn’t drive. Our community is on an island and if you’ve ever been there, you’ll understand that boardwalk bridges and boats are our mode of transporta­tion.

“With projects now moving through our territory and the need to engage, opportunit­ies are opening up that we’ve never had. The sea always gave us what we needed. But I always wanted to drive.”

The All Nations Driving Academy that I started up in Terrace was already at work, training drivers but, more importantl­y, supporting Indigenous communitie­s to own, and operate, their own driving schools. With a local community member trained as a qualified driving instructor, we find that with easier access and trusted relationsh­ips the students start lining up.

I had not even finished my own training as a driving instructor when the Haisla Nation called. “When can you get here?”

That became the first time that a First Nation community would work with the Province of British Columbia, through ICBC, to administer government ID and licensing, outside a treaty and the Indian Act, in teaching the Graduated Licence Program. The Haisla Driving School now employees three people, and members have access to local driver training in a way that didn’t previously exist.

“We’ve taken back the ability to break down barriers ourselves,” says Haisla Chief Coun. Crystal Smith.

The outlook now is for other such Indigenous driving schools to spread In B.C. There’s more to this than LNG and pipeline jobs. The forest and mining sectors can benefit, too, among others.

“The need for independen­ce and safety for people on the move is vital,” says Karen Ogen-Toews, CEO of the First Nations LNG Alliance. “Driver training like this, in First Nation communitie­s, is welcome and overdue.”

Thanks to his new community driving school, Martin Naziel of the Witset Nation near Smithers has just completed his Class 2 licence with air brake-certificat­ion — and got a job driving a community school bus.

“I never thought I’d be a bus driver,” he laughs, noting proudly that this meant another first: taking the kids from his community to swimming lessons in Smithers.

And the Gitga’at member quoted earlier is about to get his licence for the first time, at age 53.

What we’ve learned this year on the road to reconcilia­tion is that the journey can become so much easier when you can pick up your keys.

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