Indigenous innovation: Songhees open the way for entrepreneurs in new centre

Shar Wilson was full of excitement when she heard that the Songhees Innovation Centre was gathering steam.

As a home-based businesswoman who makes clothing and assessories, Wilson was looking for a way to broaden the scope of her enterprise, and the innovation centre seemed like just the place to do that.

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“I’m often in my home office just sitting by myself, and it would be nice to come out and recognize that you’re part of a bigger community,” said Wilson, who was due for an April filming session with Dragon’s Den.

Wilson attended a recent event to mark the innovation centre receiving the bulk of a $93,000 federal grant, part of a multi-million initiative aimed at First Nations economic development. Local money also goes to workshops, training opportunities and a regional economic roundtable.

“I heard about it and I had to come down to hear the announcement in person,” said Wilson, a member of the Gitxsan Nation who designs items under the name FINAWear. The name combines the initial letters in the words First Nation.

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Wilson described herself as “an apparel artist.”

“I design leggings, I design tops, athletic wear, shawls, hats, bags,” she said. “The fabric is hand-sewn in Canada and the fabric is even milled in Canada.”

The innovation centre — intended for entrepreneurial endeavours — is headquartered at the Songhees Wellness Centre, which has become a positive force around the region since it opened its doors in 2014.

Already at work in the innovation centre is Dakota Lightning, who is with Indigenous web-services business Animikii. He said the facility can make a big difference.

“It means that we have a lot of potential to move forward in innovation,” Lightning said. “And we have the opportunity to grow the space and help a lot of entrepreneurs grow their businesses.

“It helps get a lot of people together to talk to each other and help each other out, and it helps us to basically bring Indigenous people into the space of entrepreneurship.”

Lightning said his job at the innovation centre provides an opportunity to share what he knows with others.

“It allows me to congregate with tours and people and the Indigenous youth, and it helps me to, as well, grow entrepreneurs within my field,” he said. “It also allows me to establish a rapport with the youth and help get their foot in the door, into technology.”

Animikii founder Jeff Ward said the innovation centre has been a great fit for the company, whose name is Ojibwa for Thunderbird.

“We were looking for a place in the Greater Victoria area, particularly within the Indigenous community, to have a co-work space. Co-working spaces are really popular, especially amongst the technology community.

“You never know what’s going to happen at the water cooler or over lunch.”

The key was finding a like-minded group, Ward said.

“As an Indigenous-focused technology company we brought this idea to the Songhees Nation and very quickly became partners.”

Another economic initiative having success is the Songhees Investment Corporation, established in 2011. It oversees property obtained through “an incremental treaty agreement” with the province, said Songhees executive director Christina Clarke.

“They gave each of the bands in the Te’ Mexw Treaty Association some parcels of land so that we could generate some economic benefit while the process moves along.”

The Songhees received property on Esquimalt Road where the Red Barn Market is located, in James Bay near the James Bay Community Centre and on Pandora Avenue. A fourth property on Leigh Road has been purchased for investment.

The economic activity happening is just part of what is put forward in the Songhees’ 2017-27 strategic plan, which also looks at culture, education, housing, social development and more. Included in that is the Lekwungen Sport Academy, which sees youth train at the Pacific Centre for Sport Excellence.

The idea is to expand the program if Greater Victoria wins the bid for the 2020 North American Indigenous Games.

Songhees Chief Ron Sam said providing the 655 members of his nation with opportunity is a vital part of the efforts underway.

Clarke said the underlying purpose is to have a community “that’s healthy and prosperous and doing well.”

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