We finished setting up the chairs and getting coffee and tea ready for guests and stood in the window of Blue Heron House, now known by its lək̓ʷəŋən derivation: Sneq’wa e’lun. “Sneq’wa” means “Blue Heron,” and “e’lun” means “house.”
It’s January 2016, and we invited a group of Coast Salish Chiefs to a watershed dialogue on a new regional economic development model. Dan Dagg, chair of SIPP’s precursor organization, was there. So was Adam Olsen, now MLA for Saanich-Gulf Islands, who was helping us organize this meeting, and myself.
We looked out onto the water together and, honestly, you could feel the emotional weight of the moment, the anticipation of how the dialogue would go, nerves about whether our contribution would be appreciated, and also a sense of responsibility since, ultimately, aside from Adam who is a member of Tsartlip Nation, we are the ones who are guests in their territory.
As it turned out, the five Chiefs who honoured us that day stated that economic development was indeed a high priority. Not that they asked for a regional model, but more of a recognition of their sovereignty and therefore responsibility and mandate for economic development. They sought equitable solutions to build multigenerational stability — prosperity seven generations into the future that embraces environmental and social conditions, not just economic conditions or quick-win jobs.
It was nothing short of inspirational. It became clear to me that day that the Indigenous economy is about much more than jobs and incomes — it is fundamental to preserving their culture and way of life as it had for millennia before the settlers arrived. It’s key to Indigenous sovereignty and right of self-determination.
I won’t go into details about the stories shared that day, but I will say that it was an emotional day — and it was very apparent that the weight of Canada’s and our region’s colonial past is something that all Indigenous people rightfully carry through the generations.
This is why I’m honoured to write this message for a special posting from the South Island Prosperity Partnership (SIPP) in recognition of National Indigenous Peoples Day, June 21, 2023.
As many of you know, SIPP was founded in 2016 as an effort of municipal governments. But although municipalities formed the foundation of SIPP, there was agreement from the onset that First Nations must have a seat at the economic table. The Chiefs of five Coast Salish Nations honoured us at that first meeting in 2016 and shared that economic development was a top priority for them.
By the time SIPP was incorporated just two months later, on March 2, 2016, two of the Nations had joined SPP as formal founding members; seven other Nations (within the metropolitan region) joined shortly after. SIPP’s bylaws were signed by the 29 founders at the Songhees Wellness Centre, where we were hosted by Chief Ron Sam. SIPP’s bylaws also formalized a provision that First Nation members would be able to appoint an Indigenous seat on the board (as long as the Director wasn’t in a political role, which aligns with SIPP’s Bylaws for all board directors).
A key learning from SIPP’s partnership with First Nations is that the partnerships evolve over time. The journey of building relationships and trust together is fundamental. A few of the projects and initiatives that we’ve made progress on include:
- Starting in 2017, we worked with the team at Songhees Nation, along with an Indigenous technology company, Animikii, to land funding for the Songhees Innovation Centre, a facility where Indigenous entrepreneurs can build a supportive community and access shared equipment and other training and supports.
- Shortly after this, we started a monthly roundtable called IndigenousConnect with some local Indigenous entrepreneurs. We hosted guest speakers to talk about various aspects of entrepreneurship and what supports are out there.
- In 2019, we co-hosted a region-wide Indigenous Prosperity Gathering where representatives of seven Coast Salish Nations outlined their priorities and recommended next steps. We engaged an Indigenous storyteller to capture the learnings and actions from the dialogue.
- Within weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, SIPP formed the Rising Economy Taskforce, which had an Indigenous Economic committee to make recommendations around relief, recovery and increased resilience. One of their recommendations was to form an Indigenous-led economic development effort (and the rest of their recommendations are here).
- The formal creation of the Indigenous Prosperity Centre (IPC) came in 2022 as a SIPP-supported Indigenous economic development arm with an Indigenous-led advisory board. Last fall, we also welcomed Christina Clarke as the inaugural Executive Director of the IPC. She, in turn, recently hired Tarrin Sam as the first additional team member supporting her with communications and engagement.
- This was made possible due to financial institutions – and SIPP members – CIBC and VanCity and early support from Coast Capital Savings to conduct early engagement work around the creation of the IPC and now to resource some of its early activities.
- Earlier, we announced $2 million in funding from B.C.’s Ministry of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation to support SIPP’s work in ocean and marine technologies, which will also support Indigenous-led marine projects. Learn more about First Nations marine stewardship in this CHEK story about the IPC’s Flotilla event just a few weeks ago.
- Just last week at SIPP’s AGM, SIPP members unanimously adopted a formal change to SIPP’s Constitution to formalize the mandate for First Nations economic reconciliation. This will be filed under the BC Societies Act to formally secure this direction into the bedrock of our region’s economic development mandate.
I write this message not as a testament to SIPP’s work in these areas but to show our founders and current members that their support for this work is making progress and it’s important work – for all sides.
We want our members and stakeholders to feel the significance of the journey to learn from First Nations and Indigenous peoples, to honour this place they’ve stewarded sustainably for thousands of years, to thank them for their grace in having us here as guests, and to walk alongside them in the spirit of reconciling our colonial past and the many harms that need healing.
So far, it’s been a journey full of lessons and building trust together. And we are dedicated to continuing to play our part thanks to our members who’ve challenged us with this task.
Dallas Gislason is the Executive Director of Community Economies at South Island Prosperity Partnership (SIPP), the economic development alliance for Greater Victoria he helped found in 2016. Dallas has applied his passion for building resilient and inclusive economies through various projects and boards in various parts of Canada, the U.S. and abroad. He’s lived on Vancouver Island since 2010.