Songhees Wellness Centre a community success story

After eight years of planning, countless community consultations and $24 million in strategic financing, the Songhees Wellness Centre will open officially Wednesday with a ceremony honouring everyone involved.

“Our people wanted something to call their own, a gathering space, but it’s become more than that,” said Chief Ron Sam, in the office wing of the new building that overlooks a stunning seaside panorama.

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He said the centre encompasses wellness: physical, cultural, spiritual and financial.

The centre at 1100 Admirals Rd. brings the band’s previously scattered administrative offices together. It features a gymnasium with a stage and state-of-the art sound system that can hold up to 500 people for conferences, sporting and cultural events. There is also an industrial-sized kitchen, fitness centre, gift shop, health clinic, elder club and multiple meeting rooms.

“With our limited land space, we decided to go big,” Sam said.

Community events will be a priority, but the centre’s facilities are available to rent and will be used to generate income, boost the surrounding economies and provide a meeting space for other First Nations to come together.

“This is our success story. It’s not about a handout, it’s about creating our own future,” said Christina Clarke, Songhees director of operations. When the community decided to go ahead with the project, it was hoping for more investment from the federal and provincial governments.

“Initially, they [senior governments] thought it was great. Then the economy hit the skids,” Clarke said. Health Canada pitched in $800,000 and Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada contributed $200,000.

The First Nation was able to raise a substantial amount through property taxes, a capital fund and a GST revenue-sharing agreement with the federal government.

In addition to their 530 band members (two-thirds of whom live on reserve), the Songhees Nation has about 2,000 tenants.

The remaining $18 million in long-term financing was provided by VanCity and the First Nations Finance Authority under the Fiscal Management Act.

“They understood the value in investing in a First Nation government,” Clarke said. “We’re not a business, we’re a government with those revenue streams.”

Contaminated soil was excavated under the foundation and extra steel reinforces the building.

“This is a post-disaster gathering place for the entire area,” she said, noting the First Nation’s mutual-aid agreement with View Royal, which provides emergency services.

Designed by Victoria architect Philip Chang, the building is LEED-silver certified with solar hot water panels, geothermal heating and natural light design.

Its strikingly modern design is the canvas for several innovative aboriginal art components, including sculptures by renowned Lekwungen artist and educator Butch Dick and his team of carvers.

“The loon is a helper,” Dick said at the circular stone entrance to the centre, where a soaring loon carved from a 300-year-old red cedar stands like a beacon and four carved house poles rise against the waterfront backdrop.

Dick said the freedom he enjoyed on the projects, as well as the chance to work with his sons and to honour the traditions of the elders, brought him immense pride.

“The whole concept is to step into the future and a new way of being, but also remember our foundation and the teachings of our elders,” he said, pointing out one of the poles.

“It’s a story pole, the things we were told,” Dick said, as he went through each figure and the lesson it related, including an octopus, or “devil fish,” at the bottom that serves as warning against a particular swimming spot.

The centre’s offices have been full since December and several programs are already operating, including a fitness challenge, business classes and meetings of local chiefs. There is also an aboriginal RCMP liaison office.

View Royal Mayor Graham Hill said: “The wellness centre is magnificent accomplishment — a tribute to living history, an unrelenting determination to be well. It speaks proudly of the ongoing culture and the heritage of a nation, and will be a compass for generations to come.”

spetrescu@timescolonist.com

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