Builders from across Greater Victoria and beyond joined hands and tools to join members of the Tsawout First Nation and work on their big house in an act fitting Canada’s first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
Mike Edwardson, general manager and co-owner of Villamar Construction, said the Central Saanich company wanted to do something practical for the occasion.
“We knew it wasn’t a provincial (statutory holiday),” he said. “It was a work day and we were in bit of predicament of what to do.” So Edwardson reached out to Tsawout Chief Harvey Underwood through a church contact. “We just asked the question, ‘what can we do show support on this day?’ And then he brought up the long house.”
While Edwardson was unaware of the work, he jumped on the idea. “I love that we are able to be here and contribute in a practical way to this building, which is going to be here for a very, very long time being used as a facility to capture the culture and history of Tsawout First Nations people.”
Big houses made of cedar are among the most familiar and primary architectural expressions of the Coast Salish peoples, serving as spiritual and communal gathering spaces. Tsawout First Nation is currently rebuilding its big house following a fire in 2009.
Edwardson said being able to work on this “incredible structure” is meaningful for the company and its employees, who openly volunteered. “There is a lot of excitement in our company,” he said. “Reconciliation is going to be a long process, but it is things like this that are going to be able to make this happen. This building is still fundraising and it would be awesome to see some more support to make this place the best it can be,” he added.
Kenny Toews, site manager for Villamar Construction, was among the leading voices in the company pushing for sharing time and skills. (The company also donated some supplies). “We can’t do a lot to erase the past, but I think by supporting what the First Nations in this area are already doing, we can make a better future,” Toews said.
Toews said it is encouraging to hear the pride in the voices of Tsawout First Nation members working on the building. “Instead of doing something for them, this is a good project, because we are doing something with them.”
The symbolism of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people working together to help restore a culturally significant building was not lost.
“It’s a sign of how we have the ability to put our own things aside and come together when it is important,” said Devin Hutchinson, co-owner of Hutchinson Contracting. “It shows how committed some of these contractors are in town. It is a very competitive space here and I am just really happy that everyone can put this aside and come together for what really matters.”
Mike McKinnon, owner of Built Contracting, the general contractor for the structure and superintendent for the site, said he has never seen this level of cooperation. He later noted that workers from Mexico and Germany also participated in the work, pointing to the spirit of cooperation running through the project.
Becky Wilson, executive assistant at Tsawout First Nation, said the presence of the contractors honours her, given the occasion.
On a practical level, the additional help means the facility will be completed faster, she said.
“It just shows that the community out there is really in support of Tsawout First Nation,” she said. “We have companies calling all the time, asking if there is anything they can do to help. But on this day, it just means that much more because of the residential school survivors out there and the healing that this place will bring to our community.”
Thursday’s work has a personal dimension for Edwardson, who described his personal exposure to the history of the residential school system as “very low,” adding that he grew up during a time when the education system downplayed that history.
“So it has been a journey for me, particularly during the last couple of years, of just finding out,” he said. “I didn’t know that residential schools were in existence until (1996), maybe not practising some of the horrific things that were happening, but the institution was still there. It just shattered me when I found that out, just thinking about my own kids.”
That fact led him on his current path of discovery, he said. “I was able to recently do a blanket exercise, which was so incredibly powerful for me and I would encourage people to do that.”
Learning more about the atrocities of the residential school system has further inspired Edwardson, who is now looking for other ways to apply his practical construction skills. Avenues include working on improving local water services and resuming his previous volunteer work through the WSANEC School Board cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.
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