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Songhees Nation leading by example with new centre

Wellness centre opens up to community and greater region
Chief Ron Sam is celebrating this week’s opening of the Songhees Wellness Centre as a step forward for the community and an example of a First Nations community coming together to bring a major project to fruition.

Welcomed by a series of traditional house poles and a centre statue from master carver Butch Dick, the Songhees Wellness Centre is now open to the community which built it.

The large building at 1100 Admirals Rd., officially opened on Wednesday, is the culmination of more than 30 years of planning and a financial approach that required little help from outside governments.

Eight years ago, then Songhees chief Robert Sam and the band council asked that a committee be formed to come up with a location, design and plan for a new community gathering place. The intention was to amalgamate the seven or so administration and health and education buildings in the community.

“The end result has been above and beyond what we fully envisioned as a nation,” current Chief Ron Sam said.

The resulting centre is home to an elders centre, a youth centre, after-school training programs, adult education programs, a fitness gym, administrative offices and a conference centre/convertible gym, complete with a professional kitchen and room for 500 people.

The centre’s health services, overseen by the First Nations Health Authority, will provide ongoing checkups for those with health concerns and houses a home-care service.

Healthy lifestyles and prevention are also a focus, with events and education surrounding healthy eating, active lifestyles and prevention of diseases such as diabetes.

The centre is kicking off services with a 12-week health challenge, which is already filled to capacity.

“Now that we have this facility, we have an opportunity to bring our health-care practitioners together with the sports and recreation people, and just start talking about the full healthy person,” director of operations Christina Clarke said. “Really, it’s mind, body, spirit and heart.”

“For our people to have their own space to focus on health is huge,” Sam said.

The facility will serve the band’s 530 members, along with the 2,000-odd tenants living on reserve land. It will also be open to everyone on a drop-in basis, with all sports groups having a chance to book time. Longtime Songhees soccer and canoe clubs will be housed at the facility, along with other sports.

“We see ourselves as part of the region, the greater region of Victoria,” Sam said. “Opening it up to everybody benefits us, benefits the region and shows people can accept each other and work together.”

The centre is also being touted as an example of what First Nations communities can accomplish through hard work and sound financial planning.

Funding was initially sought from the federal and provincial governments, which expressed great interest. When the economic collapse happened in 2008, however, the offers of funding were not quite so forthcoming.

“We hit a crossroads where we weren’t sure whether we were going to be able to continue,” Clarke said. “But we met with our membership and essentially what they said was, ‘Let’s do it anyway.’”

Total cost on the facility was $24 million – within five per cent of the project’s budget. Of that, $18 million was borrowed, partially through the First Nations Finance Authority. The rest came from capital funds, property taxes and other sources.

VanCity Credit Union also stepped up to lend to the band, based on the strength of lease revenue and the First Nations goods and service tax.

GST collected on Songhees lands is split between the federal government and the Songhees government.

“That revenue stream supported the majority of the financing for this building,” Clarke said. “This isn’t about subsistence or managing poverty, this is about joining the regional economy and creating prosperity.”

In the end, the only federal funding the project got was $800,000 from Health Canada and $200,000 from the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs.

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