Construction of the new hospital in the Cowichan Valley came to an abrupt halt on Friday after a Cowichan Tribes contractor and other members blocked the gates over a dispute over unionized workers.
Jon Coleman is the owner of Jon-co Contracting and has been doing site preparation on the $1.45-billion hospital project since early October. His company is one of several belonging to the Khowutzun Development Corp.
Coleman said B.C. Infrastructure Benefits, the Crown corporation that provides the skilled trades for public infrastructure projects, refused the Khowutzun Development Corp. a new permit to continue work. Coleman said the reason given was that none of the companies and workers are members of unions accepted by BCIB.
“This is our territory and our people and they are not granting us an exemption to work on our unceded land,” Coleman said Friday. “We shouldn’t have to be a union to work in our own territory. There has to be an exemption and I’ll stay here until there is.”
Both entrances to the hospital site on Bell McKinnon Road are blocked by Coleman’s trucks, and a warming barrel is set up to keep the entrances blocked until a permit exemption is made. Other companies working on the site have so far refused to cross the line, said Coleman.
Coleman said the land has been logged — with wood going to longhouse builds and firewood for elders — and he’s removed the stumps and has been excavating and hauling gravel.
Cowichan Tribes said in a statement it is aware that a Cowichan citizen has locked the gate at the construction site to protest B.C. Infrastructure Benefits’ process.
Cowichan Tribes said the council and Khowutzun Development Corporation have been meeting for several months and with increased frequency in recent weeks, with representatives from Island Health, the Health Ministry, BCIB, and the general contractor, Ellis Don.
The council said the meetings have explored economic opportunities for Cowichan citizen-owned civil and trucking companies and mechanisms to work outside the BCIB process.
“Commitments were made to find ways to address hurdles and be more inclusive of Cowichan Tribes on a major infrastructure project taking place in our territory,” Cowichan Tribes said in the statement.
But Chief Lydia Hwitsum said discussions have not resulted in any actions to meet those commitments. “The clock is ticking as these economic opportunities pass by our citizens’ companies and work is performed by contractors from outside our region,” she said.
Cowichan Tribes said the new Cowichan District Hospital is an important project for all residents in the Cowichan Valley.
“It is also an opportunity for the province to build relationships and advance economic reconciliation with our community, the largest First Nation in B.C. by population,” said the statement. “Cowichan Tribes and Khowutzun Development Corporation remain committed to working with partners to secure employment and contract opportunities for Cowichan citizens on this project.”
Coleman said Cowichan Tribes companies and members have a right to work on the project, regardless of BCIB rules on who should get the work.
“In the 40 years I’ve been doing this, I’ve never been handled like this … it feels like residential school all over again — shame on them,” said Coleman, an Indian Day School survivor. “The difference between then and now is I have a voice.”
The cost of the new Cowichan Valley Hospital project, pegged at $887 million last year, has now soared to $1.45 billion and its completion date was pushed back another year to 2027.
The province attributed $488 million of the Cowichan hospital increase to “changes in market conditions and increased construction costs due to global inflation, labour shortages and ongoing global supply chain disruptions.”