There are still no Cowichan Tribes companies working at the site of the new $1.4-billion Cowichan District Hospital construction site, even though Health Minister Adrian Dix said last week they would be allowed to work there.
A statement from Cowichan Tribes and its economic arm, Khowutzun Development Corporation, on Feb. 10 said that while Island Health and BC Infrastructure Benefits, which provides the qualified skilled trades workforce for the site, now say that Indigenous companies are allowed to work on the project, the system in place limits participation for First Nations’ companies looking to subcontract work for the project’s various phases, such as trucking, earthworks, and civil work, unless they agree to unionize and have their employees join BCIB.
“At this stage of the project, all scope of work has already been contracted out to various contractors through signed agreements with the primary contractor (EllisDon Construction and Parkin Architects),” the statement said.
Cowichan Tribes Chief Lydia Hwitsum said the First Nation expects that comments made by Dix in the B.C. Legislature on Feb. 8 ensuring that Cowichan Tribes companies can work at the site are a commitment to ensure greater inclusivity for its businesses on the hospital project.
“However, we have not yet received formal notification from any parties involved of any changes,” she said.
“In the meantime, our companies and their workers are sitting on the sidelines watching the clock run out on any meaningful participation on this $1.45 billion project.”
Jodee Dick, CEO of KDC, added that the corporation proposed a solution within the Community Benefits Agreement on infrastructure and development projects that calls for specific social value outcomes in hiring, training, or procurement, to get KDC’s companies working on the hospital site in October.
“The latest correspondence from Allied Infrastructure and Related Construction Council (which represents 19 construction unions) requires KDC to try to negotiate sub-contracts at substandard rates far below our current Island rates,” Dick said.
“The next step is to forward those contracts for approval by AIRCC. We have not received a green light.”
The statement from Cowichan Tribes said the hospital project is important for all residents in the Cowichan Valley.
“It is also an opportunity for the province to build relationships and advance economic reconciliation with our community, the largest First Nation in B.C. by population,” the statement said.
“Cowichan Tribes and KDC remain committed to working with partners to secure employment and contract opportunities for both Cowichan citizens and companies on this project.”
Greg Johnson, BCIC’s executive director of stakeholder relations and contract management, confirmed that KDC’s companies are now eligible to work on the project outside of the terms of the collective agreement once they’ve been awarded a contract by the prime contractor.
He said this was communicated in a letter on Feb. 6 from the AIRCC to the KDC and the Cowichan Tribes, two days before the topic was raised in Question Period in the Legislature.
“All companies, especially local ones, are encouraged to work with the prime contractor to bid on contracts,” Johnson said.
“Only the prime contractor or its subcontractors can award work on the project. The province, BCIB and the unions do not award work on the project.”
Comments from EllisDon Construction and Parkin Architects on the issue were not immediately received.
Work was halted at the hospital’s construction site on Bell McKinnon Road for 11 days in December after KDC companies, which had been clearing the site and hauling gravel for some time, set up a protest line at the entrance.
The companies and their workers were protesting the fact that BCIB refused KDC a permit to continue to work at the site because none of its companies and workers are members of unions accepted by BCIB and AIRCC.