Chief leaves First Nations economic legacy

Robert Sam struck deals with local employer to provide jobs for Songhees, Esquimalt nation members

The logo of Salish Sea Enterprises adorns the side of a crane on Victoria’s Upper Harbour.

The logo of Salish Sea Enterprises adorns the side of a crane on Victoria’s Upper Harbour.

In the months before his death, Songhees Chief Robert Sam was working for a better future for his nation’s young people.

He and Chief Andy Thomas of the Esquimalt First Nation had formed a joint company with Ralmax Group of Companies and Ruskin Construction.

The new marine business, named Salish Sea Industrial Services Ltd. in May, provides training and employment opportunities for members of the two First Nations, including a contract to dismantle the old Johnson Street rail bridge.

The company employs nine people, six of whom are First Nations. Its barge prominently displays the logos of both First Nations.

In an interview last winter, Sam called the partnership a significant opportunity for young people, as well as a way to build awareness of the Songhees people.

“It creates for us a presence on the harbour and the downtown core area,” he said. “I’ve heard from people, ‘Oh, we thought you guys were gone.’  Ha!” he laughed. “No, we’re still here.”

The venture with Ralmax was not the first Sam negotiated with the private sector.

The first phase of construction on the Dockside Green development gave apprenticeship opportunities to some Songhees members. Sam signed a similar work agreement with the Victoria International Marina, which still awaits approval from the federal government.

“It’s groundbreaking in terms of the business community accepting us and seeing us as partners,” he said in November 2011. “Previously, when something started, we were always on the outside.”

The unemployment rate was a concern for Sam, who said the average education level on reserve is between Grade 8 and 10.

Agreements with the private sector, he said, “are a good opportunity to get some training for our young people, get them some job skills and get them out into the work force.”

However, he added, more needs to be done to ensure follow-up training is available to young people after they complete workplace apprenticeships. “We should have had a follow up,” he said. “We have to do it.”

Ian Maxwell of Ralmax has been working toward an agreement with the two First Nations for the past several years.

“We are deeply saddened by the loss of Chief Robert Sam,” he wrote in a statement to the News. “We at Ralmax have long been advocates for the meaningful inclusion of the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations in the working harbour economies. I’m proud to have been Chief Robert Sam’s business partner. Our prayers and sympathy go out to everyone.”

Salish Sea Industrial Services acts as a labour pool, where unskilled workers can train as labourers. They can also be seconded to other companies within the Ralmax Group, where they will receive further training in specialized skills such as hazardous material abatement, or apprenticeships in fields such as welding and metal fabrication.

rholmen@vicnews.com

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