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Chief Joe Alphonse, tribal chairman of the Tsilhqot'in Nation is pictured at Farwell Canyon, B.C. in October 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

The Canadian Press

Restarting a sawmill and rebuilding moose populations in British Columbia's Interior are now the focus of reconciliation talks between the provincial government and Tsilhqot'in Nation.

The talks began last year after the Tsilhqot'in won title in court to 1,750 square kilometres of its territorial lands in the remote Nemiah Valley.

Aboriginal Relations Minister John Rustad said in an interview Wednesday that both sides have signed a letter of intent, which is the next step in the reconciliation work.

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"It's a way to get out of the starting blocks for us to be able to spend some time working on a couple very important issues," he said.

He said a working group will examine the possibility of restarting the River West Forest sawmill, located west of Williams Lake, and look at business opportunities on the site.

"One of the things that is going to be critical as we go forward working with the Tsilhqot'in is finding ways for Tsilhqot'in to be self sustaining," he said, adding the nation has identified the mill as one potential economic opportunity.

Both sides have also agreed to find ways to support the recovery of the region's moose population.

Rustad said anecdotal evidence suggests the local moose population has declined, so the nation wants to work with the government to reverse the trend. He said moose are important culturally to the local aboriginal and non-aboriginal population.

The Tsilhqot'in also want to spend more time consulting with community members, Rustad said, noting the nation and government have been in conflict for more than 150 years and trust will take time to build.

Tsilhqot'in Chief Joe Alphonse said in a news release that the nation will get a closer look in the coming months at the economic opportunities available at the sawmill site.

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"A history of mistrust of B.C. is still very real for us," he said. "We are using this as a test of B.C.'s commitment to reconciliation."

Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Todd Stone announced last month the installation of distance signs, written in Tsilhqot'in and English, on Highway 20 and several other major routes west of Williams Lake.

He said the signs are meant to honour the history and culture of the region's original people.

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