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First Nations wellness centre stirs emotions

With each flick of his black marker on the face of the six-metre-long red cedar column before him, Songhees carver Clarence Dick brings the design of a traditional Coast Salish house post to life.

It is physical proof that his community’s plan to create a sustainable future is a step closer to realization.

The house post – a traditional art form embraced by the Coast Salish people, like those at Songhees Nation – is the first of five that will be erected at the entrance of the new Songhees Wellness Centre.

Construction on the $16-million health, administration, tourism and recreation facility will begin in August or September and continue for two years. The facility, which has been the community’s dream for the past 30 years, will open its doors in the summer of 2013.

“I’ll feel, I don’t know, like almost crying ‘cause you feel so happy,” says Dick, who is heading the team of Songhees carvers. “It’ll be happy tears.”

The 5,600-square-metre centre will be built at the corner of Admirals and Maplebank roads on a Songhees parcel of land, nestled between the Township of Esquimalt and Esquimalt First Nation.

It will feature three wings for administration, health and recreation services, much of which will be open to the general public – considered important to creating long-term employment, and to one day have the centre pay for itself. Unemployment in the Coast Salish community has been as high as 60 per cent.

“I hope it means change, to build a new foundation and approach to how we service our community,” says Clarence Dick’s father and Songhees elder, Butch Dick.

As the band’s education liaison worker, Butch says more youth would have incentive to stay in school if there is a permanent source of employment within the First Nation.

“We constantly talk about our people being in welfare roles,” Butch says, adding that on average 30 per cent of youth in aboriginal communities across Canada are on social assistance. “But we don’t empower them to want to be educated. We have to be able to change.”

“It shouldn’t be thought of as a solution to our issues,” says Butch, who serves as artistic director on the committee leading the project. “It’s going to give us stability.”

The centre will feature consolidated band administration services, such as treaty negotiation, property taxation, archaeology, public works, bylaw enforcement, lands management, finance and council chambers. There will be a youth drop-in centre, complete with a multimedia learning room, youth and adult classrooms and a computer lab.

The recreation wing will include a full-size basketball court, doubling as a conference centre, with retractable stage and industrial kitchen, all which can be rented.

The health wing will incorporate a work-out room, teaching kitchen and space for counselling, treatment, hydrotherapy, physiotherapy and massage. Elders will have a centre, and there will be a gift shop showcasing Coast Salish art.

The facility will also be a tourist destination, where visitors can take guided canoe trips, watch carvers, dancers and other artisans at work, and enjoy a Coast Salish meal.

However, project funding has been tough to come by.

The province has not contributed, and the federal contribution has been viewed as a disappointment by the Songhees Nation: Health Canada is providing $800,000, and Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada is contributing $200,000.

“We’d like help, but we’ll own it even more if we do it ourselves,” says Christina Clarke, project facilitator and band property taxation administrator.

Faced with raising the bulk of the funding alone, the committee asked band members in a referendum whether the project should continue. About 75 per cent voted to keep going, and the committee is now in the process of securing a financing partner.

“It’s a combination of putting up our own equity and financing, and continuing to work towards receiving grants,” Clarke says of the community’s answer to finance the project. “It’s tough times.”

Despite the positive feedback the Songhees Nation has received from politicians about the centre, it’s not translating into substantial funding, which has committee members scratching their heads.

“It lets you know there is something wrong with the system when there is plenty of money for welfare, there is plenty of money for social assistance, and very little money for economic development,” says Clarke.

“We want to break away from (relying fully on government funding), so we’re doing it ourselves.”

emccracken@vicnews.com

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