Songhees aim for future by forming economic development corporation

The future of the Songhees First Nation’s economic development strategy and the suite of businesses the nation has established will now be under the direction of the Songhees Nation Economic Development Corporation.

The Songhees announced the new entity Thursday, noting former executive director of the Songhees, Christina Clarke, would step in as its first chief executive.

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Clarke said it’s both exciting news and a daunting task as the newly minted corporation already has a lot on its plate as it presides over 10 businesses, commercial properties and development land.

Clarke said they created the body in order to put business interests and development at arms length from the administration and governance of the First Nation.

“We have so many opportunities in front of us,” she said.

Chief Ron Sam said the new corporation, which will operate out of the Innovation Centre at the Songhees Wellness Centre, has been a decade in the making.

“The Nation’s economic development initiatives have now reached a level of complexity and sustained activity that warrants a standalone development corporation,” he said. “This vision was first seeded by my uncle, our late Chief Robert Sam, and for me personally, realizing this goal is a testament to our Nation’s deep determination to be recognized and to prosper.”

Top of the agenda for the new entity will be strengthening the existing companies by improving their structure and giving them whatever resources they require to grow.

Beyond that, Clarke said they will continue to pursue partnerships to determine the best use of the land the nation has along the harbour and throughout the region.

“But first I hope this will accelerate business development and create and expand on our revenue stream to support the goals and objectives of the Nation,” she said. “Developing the revenue stream is key. We don’t want to be reliant on federal transfer payments.”

The current Songhees business portfolio of more than 10 companies and partnerships includes Salish Sea Industrial Services, Skwin’ang’eth Se’las Development Corporation, Songhees Events and Catering, Songhees Tours and the Songhees Nation Investment Corporation.

Clarke said they also hope their work will translate into increased employment both for the Songhees First Nation and the other nations on the south Island.

“To be honest, our unemployment numbers are actually quite low,” she said, noting those among the 600 Songhees looking for work generally have found it.

“But our people are sometimes underemployed and their pay can’t support a family. So we want to improve the kinds of employment available.”

The current Songhees businesses all strive to hire Indigenous workers and profit is either invested back into the company to allow it to grow or is filtered back to the nation to be used to fund new programs.

“Some of them are considered social enterprises,” Clarke said. “In those cases, training and employment are just as important as profit.”

Clarke said far from changing the nation’s relationship with other business and development bodies such as the Chamber of Commerce, Greater Victoria Harbour Authority and the South Island Prosperity Partnership, this new addition should lead to stronger economic ties and increased opportunity around the region. And she hopes this will also lead to strong ties and co-operation among the Island First Nations.

“There’s a lot of generosity among those Indigenous business communities,” she said.

“And we are proud to have been a leader. Songhees has been a very progressive community, rooted in tradition but there is an entrepreneurial spirit to the community and that is a reason for a lot of its success.

“It comes naturally to the council, they are creative, innovative and willing to take risks.”

Taking over from Clarke as executive director of the Nation will be Rosa Horne, who has served as the director of health for the Songhees over the past six years.

aduffy@timescolonist.com

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