Economic renewal takes root on First Nations land in Esquimalt

Songhees Nation involved in marine training, wellness centre development

Songhees Nation Coun. Ron Sam sits in a classroom at the Industrial Marine Training and Applied Research Centre

When Songhees Nation leaders first heard about Seaspan’s $8-billion shipbuilding contract, they knew an unprecedented economic opportunity was taking shape.

The late Chief Robert Sam and councillors began talks with the federal and provincial governments in 2011, looking at ways to take advantage of the Songhees’ proximity to the neighbouring Esquimalt Graving Dock.

On Tuesday, their hard work and negotiations came to fruition with the opening of the Industrial Marine Training and Applied Research Centre, a 1,200-square-metre education facility on Maplebank Road, and more importantly, on Songhees land.

“For too many years, we’ve been excluded from this land,” Songhees Coun. Ron Sam said at a joint press conference that included IMTARC executive director Alex Rueben, Seaspan president Malcolm Barker, B.C. Minister of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation Ida Chong, and Lynne Yelich, the federal minister of state for western economic development.

“We’re entering into a relationship of mutual benefit,” Sam said.

The training centre, comprised of two classrooms, a computer lab and offices, can handle about 50 students at a time and will provide customized curriculum, ranging from safety certifications to project management for the shipbuilding and repair industry.

By leasing land for the project, the Songhees were able to secure funding for its planned $16-million wellness centre, a health, administration, tourism, education and recreation facility set to open next year.

“It’s going to be our economic engine, part of our nation,” Sam said later in an interview. “There’s going to be a lot of business development through the centre that will spur on a lot of economic development for our people.”

While Songhees band council is still ironing out marketing and facility management details, the wellness centre will serve as an anchor for community services and schooling, said Fran L’Hirondelle, education co-ordinator.

“We’re going to bring all of our classes, K-12, under one roof,” she said.

The project is on budget and scheduled to open Jan. 22, 2014, said Richard Mandy, project manager.

Mandy has been making the rounds at various chambers of commerce and municipal councils over the past few months, scoping out potential tourism, marketing and other business partnerships.

“We know there’s got to be a balance of renting it out and keeping time open for band members, but we have to find that balance yet. It’s still a work in progress,” Sam said.

For now, there is an abundance of interest from Songhees members who want to get into the training centre at an entry level.

“We have members who are very keen to get into this school,” he said. “We hope in working with Alex (Rueben) and his team, our members will have thriving careers in shipbuilding.”

dpalmer@vicnews.com