Esther Robinson’s kids are already planning the family’s road trips this summer.
“They want to travel the world,” says Esther. “They want to go to Chilliwack, Victoria, Cultus Lake, the Malahat Skywalk, the PNE and any waterpark on the mainland.”
But it’s not just the kids who are excited. This Klemtu-born and raised mother of two is also elated. The opportunities now before her are ones that didn’t seem possible before earning her driver’s license this past May.
“I was so nervous when I had my first lesson with Amanda,” Esther explains referring to her driving instructor Amanda Christianson, from Alert Bay, who works for the ʼNa̲mg̲is First Nation owned-and-operated North Island Driving School, the first Indigenous-owned and operated driving school in the Vancouver Island and coastal region and an innovative new social enterprise start-up that Island Coastal Economic Trust invested in 2022.
“I took the 12-hour ferry ride down from Klemtu, which is about 265 kilometres northeast of Port Hardy, and I was Amanda’s first student of the day,” Esther recalls. “I got there and really didn’t know what to expect. She was so understanding and patient with me, answering all my questions. I learned so many things, like how to properly open a door with my right hand, how to nose out or back up in a parallel park, driving through school zones… so many great new things!”
It wasn’t the first time Esther had driven – she had her learner’s license for years before and had been planning to get her Class 5 driver’s for several years, though unforeseen circumstances kept that from becoming a reality.
Practicalities of living in rural and remote regions
“I had booked my road test over the spring break in 2019, but the day I was going to catch the ferry, the ocean conditions were bad, and it wasn’t able to dock at Klemtu. That meant I had to wait another three or four months to retest. And by that time, my license had expired, then COVID hit, and I couldn’t do the written test anyway…That’s when Nicolas reached out.”
Nicolas Mai is the person who first told Esther about the new driving lessons on offer on the North Island. There hadn’t been a local driving school in that part of the region for over five years, which left a huge void on those, like Esther, living in the region or even more rural and remote areas, like Klemtu. There are over 40,000 Indigenous people on Vancouver Island, the majority living in rural and remote locations where an estimate 75% do not have a driver’s license.
Virtually non-existent transit options
“Transit in a remote region is virtually non-existent,” says Gaby Wickstrom, General Manager of the ʼNa̲mg̲is Business Development Corporation (NBDC) and past owner of the previous driving school on the North Island. “Without a driver’s license, you can become isolated and miss opportunities or be forced to find other means of transportation that can be unsafe. The lack of a driver’s license has been widely determined as the number one barrier to employment for Indigenous people.”
In November 2020, in a meeting with the NBDC board, Gaby shared stories of what happened to those who got their licenses.
“Not only did they gain employment, but they were also able to move about the region, visit family members they hadn’t seen in a while, and travel to medical appointments,” she says. “Having the freedom to drive made them determined to share that freedom by encouraging others to do the same.”
Getting the ball rolling
At a Truck Logger’s Convention, Gaby had the opportunity to meet with Lucy Sager, the owner of All Nations Driving Academy, and an instrumental force in working with the Haisla and Burns Lake Bands to form their own driving schools.
“When I wrote the business plan for the NBDC, I knew Lucy was the person to help make the North Island Driving School a reality,” says Gaby.
And a reality it certainly has become. Since the school first opened, in November 2022, Amanda has driven with over a dozen Indigenous and non-Indigenous students of all ages from Port Hardy, Klemtu, and Port McNeill.
“I saw first-hand the need for this school – we needed it in our neck of the woods,” Amanda says. “The reason I first took the job was because my own son wanted to learn to drive and there was no school where he could get lessons.”
Amanda, herself, got her own driver’s license at 22 after her (then) boyfriend gave her “a few lessons”. To become an instructor, she took a course with Unlimited Driving and then was hired by the North Island Driving School.
“I felt pretty good that day,” recalls Amanda. “I came home with a big smile knowing that I’d be able to help people. And I just love it when my students get really excited, like when learning to do a reverse stall parking.”
A step towards independence and opportunities
For Chief Ho’miskanis Don Svanvik, having the new school in his community represents a substantial milestone towards independence and the opening of opportunities.
“I am very supportive of this project,” he says. “It’s been something that’s been an issue for some time. It’s a problem for Indigenous people and, particularly young people, and this clears a path for them to take the next steps in their lives.”
Chief Svanvik himself recalls getting his license at 20 and how much it impacted his own life.
“It just opened so much for me. And the confidence factor has been a big part of that too – taking that step forward,” he recalls.
As part of reconciliation efforts, having a driver’s license and the opportunities it affords aligns with Indigenous peoples’ quest to be independent.
“For 14,850 years, we’ve been self-determined, and for the past 150 years we’ve been pushed into the corner,” he says. “We want to be back in a place where we’re self-determining. It’s important for us to be and do things ourselves, and there should be a whole lot of people ready to go down this path together.”
Overwhelming demand and popularity
If the demand and popularity of programs and projects like the ʼNa̲mg̲is Driving School is any indication, there are many people in line. And according to Lucy, who has been running these programs since 2018 and has engaged over 1200 people across the province, the pressure is mounting.
“There are a lot of people coming up and asking me to help them that just can’t be served,” says Lucy. “We get into a situation with ICBC (Insurance Corporation of British Columbia) where everyone is learning at the same time – everyone is a co-pilot – and it becomes overwhelming for everyone.”
While the North Island Driving School can be inspiring for other nations, Lucy is adamant that more needs to be happening behind the scenes to address the complexities of running these projects and ensuring their sustainability, let alone their development across other Indigenous communities.
Growing economic development
“We’re in a situation of growing economic development with First Nations but many aren’t even able to drive. Or we get into a situation where a school is set up, but Nations are still building the capacity to run it, or the cost for people to come down from remote places like Klemtu and stay for a few days is thousands of dollars, or the scheduling of testing falls during work or school days. Then there’s just the practical aspect of not having enough money to set up these schools, to begin with… because they are actually needed everywhere,” she explains.
Lucy has helped set up schools in over 25 communities across B.C. including in Kitimat, Burns Lake, and Alert Bay. And the demand is only increasing by the day.
Getting serious about making change
“We know there are a number of barriers to people going to work, with not being able to drive as number one. So, we need to get serious about making change; about closing this gap; about reconciliation. At what point is this the responsibility of others – the government or the First Nations themselves? It’s not only about driving, but that is a big part of it,” she says. “It’s going to be really hard for a while.”
For people like Esther who have managed to navigate the various behind-the-scenes’ hurdles and obtain their driver’s license, the impact both personally and professionally is huge.
“I felt so accomplished that day, like a grown-up,” she recalls. “With my job at Public Works in Klemtu, I couldn’t drive the garbage truck before, but now I can. I can even go with my husband now when we grab our groceries in Campbell River, Nanaimo, or Duncan every month. This feels so good to be able to help.”
As for Esther’s advice to others who may be thinking or hoping to get their licenses, she doesn’t hesitate.
“I’d say just go for it! I know it’s nerve-racking, but when you hear those words you passed, it’s the best feeling in the world. Honestly, when you have your license, you can do anything!”
This includes travelling the world.
Island Coastal Economic Trust is honoured to have been working in close partnership with the ʼNa̱mǥis Development Business Corporation on this community-owned enterprise start-up on the North Island, valued at over $150,000. The Trust contributed $25,000 to the overall budget.