Work on the new Cowichan District Hospital on Bell McKinnon Road, the costs for which have increased to $1.45 billion, ground to a halt on Dec. 2 after members of Cowichan Tribes-owned Khowutzun Development Corporation began picketing the site.
The picket lines were still in place as of Monday morning, with no work happening at the site.
The province’s Ministry of Health said talks continue to try to resolve the situation.
Jon Coleman, a Cowichan Tribes member and owner of Duncan-based Jon-co Contracting, one of several contracting companies that fall under the banner of Khowutzun Development Corporation, said on Friday that the dispute is over unionized workers.
He said companies and workers of the KDC had been working clearing the site and hauling gravel for some time.
But Coleman said the BC Infrastructure Benefits, the provincial Crown corporation that provides the qualified skilled trades workforce for the construction of public infrastructure projects operating under the Community Benefits Agreement, got involved.
He said BCIB refused KDC a permit to continue to work at the site because none of its companies and workers are members of unions accepted by the Crown corporation.
“This is Cowichan Tribes territory and we don’t need to be in any unions to work in our own backyard,” Coleman said while standing around a fire at the site’s entrance to stay warm with other KDC workers.
“We’re going to stay here and block construction until we get a permit from BCIB to allow us to go back to work. The other companies and workers have respected our picket line so far and have not gone on site. Cowichan Tribes chief [Lydia Hwitsum] and the band are supporting us in this.”
Coleman said issue is strictly with the BCIB, and the KDC has no problems with unions.
“In fact, we’re working with the United Steelworkers and we have seven native and seven non-native students currently learning to tie steel at our site here in Duncan for rebar and other companies,” he said.
“They will become members of that union once they start working. We have deals with other unions for other training and projects as well.”
A statement from Cowichan Tribes said the First Nation and KDC have been meeting for several months, and with increased frequency in recent weeks, with representatives from Island Health, Ministry of Health, BCIB, and the general contractor, Ellis Don.
The statement said these meetings explored economic opportunities for Cowichan Tribes’ citizen-owned civil and trucking companies and mechanisms to work outside the BCIB process.
“Commitments were made to find ways to address hurdles and be more inclusive of Cowichan Tribes on a major infrastructure project taking place in our territory,” said Cowichan Tribes Chief Lydia Hwitsum.
“These discussions have not resulted in any actions to meet these commitments. The clock is ticking as these economic opportunities pass by our citizens’ companies and work is performed by contractors from outside our region.”
Jodee Dick, CEO of KDC, said the corporation has been seeking opportunities for businesses owned by Cowichan Tribes members to perform work on the construction of the new hospital.
“We have been working to create positive relationships with other contractors and trade unions, and they have been supportive of getting our citizens working on this project,” she said.
The statement went on to say that the new hospital is an important project for all residents in the Cowichan Valley.
“It is also an opportunity for the province to build relationships and advance economic reconciliation with our community, the largest First Nation in B.C. by population,” the statement said.
“Cowichan Tribes and KDC remain committed to working with partners to secure employment and contract opportunities for Cowichan citizens on this project.”
The Ministry of Health confirmed that a peaceful demonstration at the Cowichan District Hospital replacement project is preventing construction at the worksite.
“We respect everyone’s right to demonstrate and are in ongoing conversations with Cowichan Tribes to discuss their concerns,” the ministry said in a statement.
“The project is in the early stages of construction and we hope issues can be respectfully resolved and we can mitigate project delays.”