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Indigenous contractor won’t represent ‘token Indians’ in B.C. hospital dispute

Builder wants community benefits agreement abolished despite exception allowing him to work on site

An Indigenous contractor wants the provincial government to repeal the agreement that governs the construction of a $1.4 billion hospital on Vancouver Island.

Jon Coleman, the owner of Jon-co Contracting, issued the appeal Monday afternoon in the provincial legislature during a news conference after listening to Question Period, where opposition parties attacked the NDP government for excluding Indigenous workers from working on a hospital in Cowichan Valley, near Duncan.

Coleman said the Community Benefits Agreement administered by the BC Infrastructure Benefits prevents him and other Indigenous contractors under the umbrella of Khowutzun Development Corporation from working on the project because companies and workers are not members of unions accepted by BCIB.

“I’m not saying that the hospital can’t be built in Cowichan,” Coleman said. “I’m not saying it shouldn’t be built. What I am saying is that the CBA needs to be abolished. It doesn’t help our taxpayers and it doesn’t help Cowichan as a whole. It is disrespectful.”

Health minister Adrian Dix Monday repeated earlier statements that KDC is now eligible to bid for work on the Cowichan hospital site without having to unionize. That promise did not satisfy Coleman, who questioned why the CBA administrator gets to decide what First Nations get to do in their traditional territory.

“The government needs to recognize and respect the Cowichan Tribe’s governance and what we have to offer,” he said. “Tokenism needs to get out of the door. I’m not going to represent token Indians. It’s wrong.”

Coleman’s appeal was the latest line of attack on the government’s handling of the project, which critics say is three years behind schedule and $850 million over budget.

B.C. Liberal House Leader Todd Stone called community benefit agreements ‘rip-off’ agreements that discriminate against 85 percent of B.C.’s construction workers.

RELATED: Health minister says Cowichan Tribes companies free to work at hospital site

RELATED: Cowichan Tribes frustrated by lack of progress on hospital work dispute

“Cowichan Tribes members are being denied the ability to work unimpeded on projects located within their traditional territories, land that they donated,” Greg Kyllo, B.C. Liberal MLA for Shuswap, added.

Ellis Ross, B.C. Liberal MLA for Skeena, struck a comparable note.

“The elders of the Cowichan Tribes gifted land to the province to build the hospital in Cowichan,” Ellis said. “Then the Premier told the Cowichan Tribes they can’t work unless they pay the union agents who support them politically. This is a colonial story from 100 years ago.”

BC Greens leader Sonia Furstenau, who is the MLA for the area, also criticized the government last week.

Dix repeatedly rose to defend his government.

“I’m sure everyone…understands what that means, what it meant last Wednesday, and what it means now, which is that they are allowed to bid on the project, and, of course, work on the project without a change to their workforce,” he said.

He said the industry average for Indigenous participation on such projects is six percent.

“On the Cowichan project, it’s well over 20 percent,” he said. He also pointed out that “(everyone) working on the Cowichan hospital lives within 100 kilometres of the hospital.”

Coleman questioned Dix’s numbers and pointed out that almost the workforce on the project was Indigenous prior to the CBA as his company had helped to clear the site of trees, only to be excluded later.

Coleman said his company’s exclusion from the project has taken a financial and mental toll on him. But he vowed to push his case.

“It’s not fair, it’s not right and I will not be stepped on anymore and I will keep coming back here until we have paper works that states where we stand.”


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Wolf Depner

About the Author: Wolf Depner

I joined the national team with Black Press Media in 2023 from the Peninsula News Review, where I had reported on Vancouver Island's Saanich Peninsula since 2019.
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