Delmar Williams, who is from the Squamish and Lil’wat nations, grew up among elders speaking the traditional language and singing traditional songs. His family fished in the Fraser River to sustain themselves throughout the year.
When he grew up, he combined his love of the outdoors with his dedication to his heritage and has created a career – a lifestyle, really – leading people through wilderness expeditions that integrate Indigenous learning and primitive skills.
He is a certified mountain hiking guide who leads big game hunts and works with Outward Bound, where he recently ran the first Indigenous instructor development program. He is also involved with the Wilderness Living Project, which teaches ancient earth-based skills in the Elaho Valley and elsewhere. His own business, Two Worlds Guiding Company, offers tailored outdoor adventures for individuals, groups and schools. The name of his business comes from William’s vision of his place in the world.
“I’m really drawn to the raven because it’s a messenger between two worlds,” he says. “I like to combine the native world and the non-native world, as a messenger.”
Some of his skills were honed at the Boulder Outdoor Survival School, in Colorado, where he walked through the desert for two weeks with no knife, matches or other equipment except a five-by-five-foot cotton blanket, a toothbrush, and a camera. Using friction to make fire and surviving on foraged food, fish and rodents caught in crude traps, Williams says, “I learned how to live with nothing.”
He also teaches at public and private schools, as well as for Quest University’s business program.
“I’ll go there and do a little bit of Aboriginal stuff and then also some primitive skills, go for a day hike,” he says. “I’m a guide but I also have all the first-aid and I can teach traditional native skills, so it all kind of blends together. I’m an all-rounder.”
He is also on a lifetime mission to master every form of archery, he does drum-making and is a carver. Throughout the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, Williams accompanied a master carver doing traditional carving demonstrations in Whistler.
The products of this work are visible in the house posts at the Squamish Lil’Wat Cultural Centre and in the 27-foot totem pole near the IGA in Whistler.
For those who Williams leads in programs, his objective is succinct: “I want to be able to take them through an experience, have them have a little bit of craftsmanship at the end, a little bit of self-reliance.”
Williams’ life and career path are somewhat unique, but he is one of the hundreds of members of the Squamish Nation with something important in common. He has benefited from an entrepreneurial initiative with a success rate that is turning heads in native and non-native communities.
In 2000, the Squamish Nation ended a 23-year legal battle around land claims that included Kitsilano Point in Vancouver, much of Squamish and parts of North Vancouver. The history of Kits Point was particularly painful. In 1877, 35 hectares at the south end of what is now the Burrard Bridge, were set aside for the Squamish people. Three decades later, the provincial government expropriated the land in order to expand the City of Vancouver. The lawsuit, initiated exactly a century after the broken promise in 1977, dragged on until an out-of-court settlement granted the Squamish Nation $92.5 million in lieu of the contested land.
The approximately 3,000 members of the nation each received a dividend at the time and the rest of the money was put into a trust.
Geena Jackson, small business officer for the Squamish Nation, says that, depending on the stock market, the trust can generate $700,000 to $1.2 million annually, which is then invested into priorities including housing, education, elders, recreation, and entrepreneurship.
It is the latter priority that has helped Williams and more than 400 other members launch or expand successful businesses.
“I started with the Squamish Nation Trust 10 years ago,” says Jackson. “We had a very limited amount of entrepreneurs – some artists, some people who owned a couple of catering companies ... and then over the last 10 years, it’s increased to 460 people.”
Jackson’s office publishes the Squamish Nation Small Business Directory, the pages of which have burgeoned over the decade. Most of the businesses listed have either received seed funding from the program or the principals have participated in the trust’s entrepreneurship classes, which include business fundamentals, marketing, social media and building your own website.
“We support about 50 to 60 entrepreneurs per year,” Jackson says, with each receiving about $2,500 to $6,000 through a two- stage process.
Along the way, the Squamish Nation has nabbed four B.C. Aboriginal Achievement Awards in three years, recognizing the best of Aboriginal entrepreneurship in the province.
The fact that 10 per cent of the community are business owners – and the program ha an 80 per cent retention rate – is due in part to the mutual support of the community and the participants in the program, who find support among one another as they meet the challenges of entrepreneurship.
The Squamish Nation’s demographics also help, she adds.
“We have 4,000 members, and 50 per cent of our members are under the age of 25,” she says. “So we’ve got a lot of young entrepreneurs that are up-and- coming.”
The level of success surprises Jackson and others.
“It’s ridiculous,” she says, laughing. “We are like superstars. People are always waiting to see what Squamish is doing. It just shows how fast-forward thinking all of our members are. And it’s all about community ... and with the community comes confidence.”