For the past four months, an Indigenous contractor says his company has been kicked off the job of building a new hospital within his territory.
“It’s an insult,” said Jon Coleman, who owns Jon-co Contracting and is a member of the Khowutzun Development Corporation which is owned by Cowichan Tribes.
Coleman says his contracting company had been clearing 22 acres for the new hospital. In November, Coleman says his company was banned from the job because his company is not unionized.
“I’m a little upset,” said Coleman.
BC Greens leader Sonia Furstenau brought the issue front and centre to the legislature during question period on Wednesday.
“When can Jon Coleman and the other companies in Cowichan expect to be able to work on the hospital that is being built on Cowichan Tribes territory?” said Furstenau, her question aimed at Premier David Eby.
Instead, the health minister responded, indicating a change had been made.
“The Khowutzun Development Corporation is now eligible for work on the Cowichan site without a change in their workforce,” said Adrian Dix, minister of health during Wednesday’s question period.
As of right now in British Columbia, any kind of company (unionized or not) is allowed to bid for government contracts, but as soon as shovels hit the ground-based, that company needs to be unionized.
CHEK News asked on Dix Thursday for clarification on if the union requirement was going to be waived or if he was saying the company could bid as they’ve always been able to do, the minister didn’t answer the question fully.
“Without changing their composition of employees so they’re going to be allowed to bid,” said Dix.
Coleman hasn’t seen anything in writing and worries the minister’s remarks may be empty.
“I just felt that this was a lie,” said Coleman. “This is another smoke and mirrors show. There is no intent to work with us. If there is there would have been urgency when I asked about it in October.”
Cowichan Tribes Chief Lydia Hwitsum told CHEK News she believes the government will be waiving the union requirement, and she’ll be holding the government to its word.
“I’d be very concerned that the government would not be honouring what they said in the legislature,” said Chief Hwitsum. “The government has made commitments and we will be holding them to that.”
At this moment no permit has been issued, according to Chief Hwitsum, that would be the next step in terms of commitment.
“Our people want to work, they want to be able to support their families. I want to stand right beside them to support Cowichan citizens in being part of the economy and building their expertise. And recognizing Cowichan people have so much to offer, not just to this project,” said Chief Hwitsum.
Chief Hwitsum says that the current provincial government’s systems, intended or not, exclude Indigenous people from working on contracts in their own territories.
“We can’t look at this as a one-off. We recognize there’s a problem here and we have to do more work to address it and make sure there is space for Indigenous peoples,” said Chief Hwitsum. “There are problems in the systems now when they’re excluding Indigenous peoples.”
If the union requirement is waived it would be the first exemption this NDP government has offered and would set a precedent for other First Nations across the province.