The construction of a new hospital in Duncan, B.C., on Vancouver Island, appears to be putting the province’s union-favouring “Community Benefits Agreement” at odds with its commitment to Indigenous rights.
A Cowichan Tribes member and owner of a local contracting firm has spoken out.
Jon Coleman said his and other Indigenous-owned companies are being sidelined on their own traditional territory.
“I thought it was an all-inclusive thing here,” said Coleman, owner of Jon-co Contracting.
“Basically, I’ve gone backward. You know how much money is being torn back with these unions and this CBA? … They’re stealing out of our community.”
The $1.45-billion Cowichan District Hospital Replacement Project is the first major health facility to be built under the Community Benefits Agreement, which includes increasing Indigenous employment. Yet companies owned by the Cowichan Tribes said they’re being shut out because their workers are not members of unions under the agreement.
“It just feels so frustrating,” said Cowichan Tribes Chief Lydia Hwitsum.
“It’s not consistent with the word inclusion they’re consistently using in their Community Benefits Agreement and in the pathway to economic reconciliation, as well.”
Even with B.C. committed to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Chief Hwitsum said excluding her members’ companies from the mega-project unless their employees become unionized shows the systems in place need changing.
“We’ve proposed solutions and we keep hearing no,” she told Global News.
“We come back and we propose another solution. Opportunities are slipping away.”
In a statement, the B.C. government told Global News that it is in an “ongoing conversation” with Cowichan Tribes regarding the matter.
“We are in an ongoing conversation with Cowichan Tribes to discuss their concerns,” Ministry of Health staff said in an email.
“We’re listening and continue to work to support economic opportunities for their members. Local Indigenous tradespeople are working on the project, including members of Cowichan Tribes.”
Coleman said he had planned to have at least 15 workers on the project. Instead, he said the economic impact has been devastating, forcing him to pivot his business and send back equipment.