Comment: Scia’new directing own destiny with Spirit Bay

For generations, aboriginal peoples in Canada have celebrated this time of year, the summer solstice, a time to gather, share stories and enjoy the bounty of the season.

When I was growing up on the coast, we didn’t call it National Aboriginal Day. But we knew this was the time of the year we would come together as a community in the longhouse, feast on salmon and rejoice to the beat of our traditional drummers.

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But at times over the generations, the notion of celebrating has become increasingly difficult for many indigenous peoples. Poverty, unemployment and the legacy of residential schools are well known. History hasn’t always been kind.

Rather than looking backward, many First Nations are now creating a bright future for the next generation through innovative business ventures. Some are harvesting trees and mining the earth. Others are developing sustainable fisheries, planting non-traditional crops such as wasabi or leading clean-energy projects such as wind farms.

The Scia’new First Nation, at Beecher Bay near Sooke, is creating a brighter future for our young people with the creation of a whole new seaside community. We are 51 per cent owners of a development project that will see 600 homes built on 40 hectares of our traditional territory.

No one person is responsible for this project — it is the creation of our entire community. For months, we came together around weekly barbecues to develop a long-range plan for our people. From our youth to our elders, from hereditary chiefs to band council, we have joined in a common cause. The result is Spirit Bay, a village that will bring homes to our land and hope to our people.

But this isn’t a normal housing subdivision where the land is blasted flat and all the trees are cut down. Spirit Bay is a sustainable community where the homes conform to the land, where roads will be narrow and where a geothermal heating system means homes will be warmed with heat extracted from the sea. Everything we do has to conform with strong environmental and sustainability principles.

For example, we make every effort to preserve trees. But when trees need to be removed, they are milled and used on site. It means the fireplace mantel in one home might have been grown in that very location.

This 10-year project, which is a partnership with the Trust for Sustainable Development, doesn’t just involve the construction of homes. We also have plans for a general store, hotel, spa and medical facility. All of these projects hold the promise of employment for my people.

In the past few decades, unemployment has been a significant issue for the people of the Beecher Bay First Nation. But now our people are finding work and gaining skills to keep them earning family-supporting wages.

These are still early days, with only a handful of homes built and occupied. But already, we are seeing some of the benefits.

Eight of our band members are employed on site, in a range of jobs from safety officer to heavy-equipment operators. Even more important, our people are gaining valuable education and skills to succeed.

Camosun College began an education program at Spirit Bay, offering on-site trades training to our people. It gives me enormous pride to say five graduates from the program are working on site today and two have been hired by other construction companies. They now have the skills to provide themselves with good-paying, family-supporting jobs.

Put it all together, and we finally can look to the future with pride. We have 253 band members, although fewer than half of them live here. But things could soon change. More band members are returning home and seeing a future for themselves. It is a future that is built on the economic gains that come from home sales, taxes and employment. It means we can do more to provide for our community, more for our children.

And that is what this is all about — standing up for our children and grandchildren. We are giving them a future they can look to with pride.

Together, we are taking our destiny in our own hands. And that is truly something to celebrate.

Chief Russ Chipps is chief councillor of the Scia’new (Beecher Bay) First Nation near Sooke.

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