The Songhees Nation is garnering attention on a local, national and international stage through an economic and community growth strategy powered by member engagement.

Q&A with the Songhees Nation

This Nation of around 600 people, whose reserve is adjacent to the Esquimalt Nation, the Township of Esquimalt and the Town of View Royal, is led by Chief Ron Sam and Council. As  Lekwungen (Lək̓ʷəŋən) speaking peoples, Songhees’ lands fall within Lekwungen territory.

Canadian Traveller recently included Explore Songhees among its list of 22 recommended national Indigenous tourism experiences, while Forbes magazine named Songhees Nation’s food, walking and canoe tours among the Top 10 New Ways to explore Canada’s Indigenous Culture.

In addition to Indigenous tourism experiences, Songhees Nation also built and operates the Songhees Wellness Centre, Songhees Events and Catering, Songhees Innovation Centre (coworking space for Indigenous entrepreneurs), the Songhees Nation Investment Corporation, and the Songhees Development Corporation.

The Songhees people are actively pursuing self-government, aiming to achieve that goal by 2027. The Nation’s diverse portfolio of businesses and partnerships is community-led, with projects decided upon by members rather than through a top-down approach.

We spoke to Christina Clarke and Katherine Legrange about the Songhees Nation’s approach to economic development and their work to advance community prosperity.

Christina is the Songhees Development Corporation’s Corporate Executive Officer and a member of the Working Group developing the Indigenous Prosperity Centre. Katherine became the Songhees Nation Executive Director in January 2022, having worked for several years in First Nations governance and politics, with a background in communications and child welfare.

How does the Songhees Nation define prosperity?

Christina:  When you look at the Nation’s strategic plan, it’s expressed there. Our priorities and goals are holistic: to nurture a flourishing language and culture, be financially self-reliant with a sustainable land base providing housing and business opportunities and support education and skills development for our people.

We approach each of the pillars of our strategic plan as a part of the full person, where social health and wellbeing are as important as business and economic growth. And that’s why we built the Songhees Wellness Centre, not just as an economic engine (housing several businesses within its walls), but also as a place of wellness for our members. It’s not all about profits — it’s about people and their quality of life. 

We’re trying to help folks find jobs that inspire them and where they can really contribute their talents. The effort by the Nation to engage outward and make an impact on the region was very purposeful. It was our Chief and Council who said we need to work with our neighbours to further our goals and get off the reserve into the community, into Lekwungen territory, and do business out in the territory and help members get comfortable on their own lands.

So, for us, prosperity includes wellness — spiritual, mental, physical, emotional wellness.

How does the Nation choose its business projects and partnerships?

Christina: We observe how members react to opportunities. And when there’s a lot of interest, then we focus. Tourism and hospitality is an example. We did some testing, including canoe tours, one summer. The interest level was really high, with members expressing that they saw this as a way to achieve other objectives, too, like transferring cultural teachings and encouraging public awareness of Lekwungen people and their territory. So it matched, not just in economic need, but as a social need to be present in the territory, visible in the territory.

What’s it been like creating an Indigenous tourism experience through Songhees Tours and the Explore Songhees brand?

Christina: Well, riding in a war canoe in the inner Harbor is an experience in and of itself. It’s quite wonderful to see it from that vantage point. But experiencing the Inner Harbor with people whose relationship goes back tens of thousands of years creates such an intimate connection to the land. 

We did a survey of our members to find out what they wanted visitors to know and how they would describe the Songhees Nation. The feedback was very consistent: It all comes back to the Land, so much of Lekwungen identity and culture comes from Lekwungen Land, they need to be understood together.

With any economic opportunity, we ask: is this going to hurt the land, or is it a good use of it? We have a long lens approach. We don’t engage in any cut-and-run kind of economic development. 

The Songhees Innovation Centre has become a hub for Indigenous entrepreneurs. What has been the impact for the Songhees people?

Christina: There’s a huge benefit for Indigenous business to be located on reserve and strong interest by Indigenous business to maintain their identity. It’s been wonderful to watch the Centre become known as a place where innovative talent can grow, and it helped us realize how many talented people there are living in Lekwungen territory. 

It’s quite inspiring for our members and has gotten people interested in entrepreneurship. We offer business training programs, which are well attended.

How do you define Songhees territory when it comes to doing business in the South Island region?

Christina: Lekwungen territory ranges from Albert Head to Cadboro Bay. Songhees Nation reserve lands today represent a tiny subset of that territory. So, the goal is to be present throughout the territory, for instance via the Marine Trail, which we are renaming the Songhees Shoreline Trail since it’s a mixed shore and marine trail. We’ve identified 12 points of interest within the trail and are working with a group of stakeholders to install interpretive signage and activate these sites, for example, at Fort Rodd Hill.

That stakeholder engagement is a form of reconciliation. And we can’t look at this through just an economic lens. This is about relationships. Katherine and I talk about how we can leverage the capacity we have in economic development and in education and other programs of the Nation that align with our strategies so that we’re using all of our strengths to give our members the opportunities to choose what they want to pursue. 

We have a cannabis store, we have a tourism company, we have food and events and hospitality services. We also own properties with the Esquimalt Nation. So there are several land-use opportunities available, and we encourage active involvement by our members to shape what the future of the territory looks like. For example, do they envision other village sites or do they just want to keep the reserve — or will we build a housing development somewhere on fee-simple land and call that home because it’s in the wider territory.

This all ties into the Lekwungen relationship to the land. It’s not all about ownership. So when we’re looking at business development opportunities in the South Island, we’re not just concerned about the reserve. We’re concerned about the health of the environment throughout the territory.

Songhees Nation intends to play a leadership role in efforts to steward the land from an environmental perspective but also in holding the stories of the land. Imagine looking across from Oak Bay to an island with six longhouses, each home to a hundred people over 2,000 years ago. And that would be just one of the villages peppered along the coast. So this is also about Lekwungen memory and about staying in one place for tens of thousands of years. 

The Nations knew where their medicine gathering sites were and are. They know how to move on the land and celebrate what it offers. People talk about renaming places with Indigenous names, we talk about giving the names back or restoring names because they can be informative on the level of people understanding the relationship to the land. 

After the buildings are built and then they fall, the land is still here. So nothing seems super permanent when you view it in that context. That’s why we don’t cut and run, and we are thoughtful about development. We’re not predatory in our approach because of our value system.

Are there any projects you’re working on right now that you’re really excited about?

Christina: The Songhees Shoreline Trail is very exciting, and so is our new housing development. There’s really a desperate need for housing and it is a community-driven project. We’ve got Indigenous artists involved before the building is built — at the architecture stage, helping influence the aesthetic and how it expresses Lekwungen culture.

It’s exciting that the Nation has a lot of trust from community members. Members will speak up if there’s something that they want to influence and see change or be part of. And that participation feeds into our strategy of building leaders as well as businesses.

Those businesses are also focused on supporting an Indigenous approach to work-life balance, respecting the balance of motherhood for example and of cultural responsibilities, which is important for our wellbeing.

Are there any challenges that you’re facing right now?

Christina:  This past year has been especially difficult with the revelations of burials at residential schools.  It’s not something people want to talk about, it’s very painful. I believe that these difficult moments offer opportunities for healing, both individually and collectively. 

This is a turning point for Canada and an opportunity for change. I believe the change will come because almost every single person I deal with in my work is trying to figure out how they can fix their little corner of the world. You know, how can they take down systemic barriers? How can they deconstruct it? And that’s how it’ll be done — by Canadians across the country saying these policies don’t align with our values anymore.

People need to hold our government accountable for their promises and to task for letting Indigenous communities down so badly.

There also needs to be more education and understanding about treaties, about the Indian Act, how we structure our communities and about the issues Nations face, most especially around self determination and the many barriers that need to be addressed to allow for true self-government.

Katherine, you’re new to the Nation, coming from your latest position Winnipeg to take on the role of Executive Director this past January (2022). What led you to apply? 

Katherine: I joined because the Songhees Nation has a very strong economic development approach, an impressive entrepreneurial attitude and they’ve built strong community relationships. Building on an already strong foundation has been my focus since I arrived. 

That was the mandate I received from the Chief and Council, to continue to build relationships and expand what’s already been started here. I’ve already started meeting people, which has been really enjoyable. I feel very fortunate to be here.

What’s the best way for non-Indigenous businesses to approach the Songhees Nation to explore a project or business partnerships?

Katherine: It depends on the intent. If it’s to partner, then Christina’s probably the best point of contact. But if it’s for relationship building with the Chief and Council, then I’m probably the better resource. 

It seems like business and community go hand in hand for the Nation, correct? 

Katherine: Yes – and we’ve been reviewing our regional relationships right now. We used to have an outward-inward focus, but now we need to integrate that lens. People often say First Nations need to separate governance from business, but the reality is our economic opportunities come through our government. They come out of treaty negotiations. They come out of reconciliation efforts. So oftentimes, it’ll be a relationship that gets nurtured at the Chief and Council level. 

And if that grows then Christina is brought in to explore, but we will always be led by the Nation and what their priorities are and what they see unfolding. For example, it was the Songhees Nation people that said they wanted to get involved in cannabis retail, and we followed their lead.

When you envision the Songhees Nation in 2040, what do you see or hope for?

Katherine: I hope that we are fully engaged in the region, present throughout the territory in a visible way and help everyone to remember the stewardship responsibility we have for being on these lands. [I also hope] the Nation assumes a kind of moral authority too, about the land, reminding us of what we need to do to take care of these lands, that they will forever have responsibility for. 

Christina: [We also envision] that the goals and priorities of the strategic plan are accomplished: to have self-government; to have a thriving, healthy population; to have young people get involved in careers that excite them and inspire them and be innovators; to be way past surviving to fully thriving.