Struggling Nisga’a community claims it was ‘devastated’ after builder failed to deliver tourist centre

Pair of totem poles at entrance of bridge in Gitwinksihlkw, British Columbia | Shutterstock

The Nisga’a Village of Gitwinksihlkw (NVG) is suing modular building producer Westcoast Outbuildings Inc., its CEO, Geoff Baker, and its CFO, Laura-Lee Normandeau, claiming the community was “devastated” after allegedly being strung along for months about a planned tourist centre that the company failed to produce.

The village, 100 kilometres northwest of Terrace, filed a notice of civil claim in BC Supreme Court on August 6. According to the claim, the village’s name means “place of lizards” and comes from the “Nisga’a oral tradition which states that large lizards lived in the Village up until the last volcanic eruption occurred in Nisga’a territory, approximately 250 years ago.”

“The eruption is said to have left vast lava beds throughout the Gitwinksihlkw and led to the creation of Nisga’a Memorial Lava Bed Park, a popular destination and tourist attraction with a 16-site campground and Visitor Centre displaying Nisga’a artifacts,” the claim states. “In recent years, NVG has been taking steps to develop and invest in the hospitality industry in Gitwinksihlkw. Developing these industries is particularly important to NVG as the community struggles with a number of economic and social issues, including significant overcrowding in village members’ homes.”

As part of the village’s official community plan, the Nisga’a envisioned a tourist centre called “The Welcome House,” which was to include a 20-seat café and a gift shop to “serve as the hub for residents, travelers and visitors to the Nass Valley.” The Welcome House was to be the Nass Valley’s only Indigenous-owned-and-operated restaurant business and a local had already signed on to operate it, the lawsuit says. The village also received more than $500,000 in grants to fund construction.

When the village inked design and production agreements with Westcoast Outbuildings for the modular structure, the company allegedly represented it was able to complete the project in time for National Indigenous Peoples Day on June 21, 2019.

“It was particularly important to NVG to have the Welcome House completed by [Indigenous Peoples] Day because of its significance as a day of celebration for Indigenous peoples in Canada,” the claim states. “NVG wanted to give its residents further reason to celebrate their identity, and to be proud of their community and hopeful for its economic prospects.”

But in February 2019, the company allegedly changed its tune and claimed the project needed “significant changes” after Baker discovered design defects after the original project manager left the company.  Months later, the company told the Nisga’a Village that costs for the Welcome House had ballooned despite a fixed-fee contract for production of the building. On July 16, Baker allegedly admitted that Westcoast’s business was failing and its workforce was gone, and that the Nisga’a production payments and deposit had been used to fund the company’s expenses and unrelated projects. 

“NVG’s small community is devastated over the loss of its Welcome house and the $537,211.50 it paid under the Production Agreement,” the claim states.

The Nisga’a Village of Gitwinksihlkw seeks damages for fraudulent misrepresentation, breach of contract, conspiracy and conversion. The allegations have not been tested or proven in court and the defendants had not responded to the claim by press time.