Cowichan Tribes and its economic development arm Khowutzun Development Corporation are calling out Premier David Eby and the NDP government for their policies regarding who can work on the construction of the new $1.4-billion Cowichan District Hospital.
Work was halted at the hospital’s construction site on Bell McKinnon Road for 11 days in December after contracting companies that fall under the banner of the KDC, 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 the BC Infrastructure Benefits, the provincial Crown corporation that provides the qualified skilled trades workforce for the construction of public infrastructure projects, refused KDC a permit to continue to work at the site because none of its companies and workers are members of unions accepted by the corporation.
Jodee Dick, CEO of KDC, said when the protest lines were taken down on Dec. 13 that, although the dispute was still unresolved, the KDC and Cowichan Tribes had been working with Eby in efforts to resolve the issue, and they were hoping that the premier would bring back some sort of offer to the table within days.
But, despite ongoing negotiations, no solution has yet been found and Cowichan Tribes and the KDC are becoming increasingly frustrated.
A statement from Cowichan Tribes and KDC on Jan. 19 said the First Nation and the KDC have been unsuccessfully advocating for many months to secure economic opportunities for Cowichan citizen-owned companies as part of the hospital project.
The statement said Cowichan Tribes was excluded from the negotiations of the Community Benefits Agreement that governs the hospital project, and there was also no mechanism for the First Nation to negotiate an Interim Benefit Agreement that would have secured a scope of work for the KDC and its Cowichan citizen-owned civil and construction companies.
“The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples includes the right to economic reconciliation,” the statement said.
“However, the existing CBA excludes consideration of Cowichan economic interests and the KDC’s initial work permit request was rejected.”
Cowichan Tribes Chief Lydia Hwitsum and Dick met earlier this week with BC Infrastructure Benefits and the Allied Infrastructure and Related Construction Council to continue to try to find a solution and remove the barriers preventing KDC and Cowichan companies from participating on the hospital project, the statement said.
“We have submitted another work-permit proposal, which is now under review,” said Dick.
“We hope to receive approval in the near future, as the scope of work that can be performed by our citizen-owned companies continues to dwindle each week.”
Hwitsum added that she finds it unacceptable that the traditional peoples in the region should be excluded and deliberately prevented from playing a role in the building of vital community infrastructure.
“This amounts to a rejection of our Rights and Title within our territory,” she said.
“It is hard to believe in today’s environment of Truth and Reconciliation that we would find ourselves in this situation.”
Jon Coleman, the owner of Jon-co Contracting who was one of the leaders of the protest line at the hospital in December, said he’s disappointed that the issue has not yet been resolved.
He said that what is most frustrating is that the hospital project is on the unceded territory of Cowichan Tribes and his company, and other First Nation companies, are being told that they can’t work in their community and traditional territory.
“Instead, work is being granted to businesses outside of the territory and outside of the Cowichan Valley, which is in complete contradiction to the BCIB mandate,” Coleman said.
“In fact, there is a real possibility that the general contractor will be bringing in temporary foreign workers because they can’t find local labour. I have been forced to lay off staff and return equipment hired and leased specifically for the work we planned on doing at the hospital. Not only has this caused tremendous financial stress, but it has also created uncertainty for my employees who are residents of the Cowichan Valley.”
In response to the criticism, the Ministry of Health said the hospital project is important for people in the Cowichan Valley.
“We are in ongoing conversation with Cowichan Tribes to discuss their concerns,” a ministry spokesperson said.
“We’re listening to them and continue to work to support economic opportunities for their members.”
Greg Kyllo, the BC Liberals’ shadow minister for Labour, questioned how sincere the government is wanting to provide jobs locally.
He said the hospital project was estimated to cost $600 million, but has ballooned to more than $1.4 billion due to Eby’s discriminatory policy that gives special treatment to NDP-supportive unions over local First Nations employees from the Cowichan Valley.
Kyllo said the NDP’s preferential treatment of their union donors is harming local community employment, grossly inflating costs and adding more layers of red tape and bureaucracy to the province’s healthcare system, which is already in crisis.
“It’s outrageous that community members of the Cowichan Tribes are being withheld from work on their own lands,” he said. “With 85 per cent of B.C.’s construction workers excluded from working on public infrastructure projects under the CBA program, it’s no surprise to see the NDP is prioritizing union kickbacks over support for local communities and First Nations.”