A culture of economic collaboration: In conversation with the Songhees Nation’s Christina Clarke

Christina Clarke is the Executive Director of the Songhees Nation, whose territorial homeland is the South Island Region. She’s been serving the Nation for four years in her current position, and a further 22 years in other professional capacities.

The Songhees Nation was among the first members of the South Island Prosperity Project. In speaking with Clarke, we began to understand how South Island’s mandate for collaborative economic growth aligned perfectly with the Songhees’ culture of ‘creating a larger economic pie and enriching everyone together.

In our conversation, we discussed the Songhees’ philosophy toward business, reinvesting in youth, and how their innovative Wellness Centre has ushered in a new era of economic growth.

Listen to a podcast of our conversation

Prominent points

South Vancouver Island is Songhees traditional territory. Of the 571 band members, a large proportion is young – providing the Nation with a vested interest in creating meaningful careers in the South Island region. The alternative for youth – leaving their homeland and ancestral clan to find work – is not an attractive option.

The Nation opened an innovative Wellness Centre a few years ago. This Centre has become much more than a recreational facility. It’s a hub for the Nation, as well as a magnet for outside visitors.

The Centre started as a significant risk, as the Nation needed to cover essentially all the costs of construction. This was accomplished by creating two new revenue streams – leasing land, and implementing a First Nations Goods and Services tax.

These two revenue streams proved a success, and provide ample funding to service the debt, and cover the operations of the building.

Local policing, health and wellness, recreation, convention space – the Wellness Centre has grown to become more of a ‘home’ rather than a facility. This is very much in keeping with the Songhees’ longhouse culture.

In addition, the Centre’s convention space is doing great business, and has sparked skills training for Songhees youth – a key part of creating meaningful careers here. The Songhees have a partnership with Camosun College, enabling 3 band members to be in the Red Seal chef program as they apprentice at the Wellness Centre.

A central driver of the South Island region’s economy is tourism. And a perennial problem of tourism is skilled labour. While the Wellness Centre is enabling more young people to get the sort of training they need to find viable careers in our region, it is also helping local businesses in their search for qualified employees.

Vistors to the Centre understand that this is no ordinary convention facility. It has strong cultural underpinnings, reflected in the $1 million Songhees art collection on display. To Clarke, this art is simply another way of sharing Songhees’ culture with people. It’s a history lesson for kids, and a reminder of where the Nation came from, and where it’s going.

The Songhees nation was an early member of South Island Prosperity Project. Both the Nation and South Island share a mandate for collaboration, which made the partnership a natural fit.

One of the first Songhees / South Island collaborative projects is a First Nations Community Dialogue Series. This involves having conversations in each native community to see where their strengths lie, and where they want to go. When all information has been gathered, the group can decide collaboratively how to help one another fulfill their goals.

Songhess Nation is also embarking on a 10 year strategic planning process, including creating 7% surplus revenues, while enabling their members to do what they love.

Quotable quotes
• “It’s as if the region woke up to us as an economic force when we opened the Wellness Centre.”
• “We haven’t advertised the Wellness Centre yet – we’re extremely busy, and it’s all word of mouth.”
• “We didn’t want the Wellness Centre to be an institution – we wanted it to be a home. It’s a concept that comes from our culture, from the idea of living and working together in longhouses.”
• “Our philosophy is that we want to grow the economic pie, instead of having everyone take their slice and go to their corner. We want to enrich everyone, and that comes through collaboration – the sort of collaboration South Island Prosperity Project represents.”

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