In Conversation With Christina Clarke, Executive Director of the Songhees Nation

Christina Clarke is pushing past barriers and finding new ways for Indigenous entrepreneurs to succeed.

Photograph by Jeffrey Bosdet.

When Christina Clarke was studying Canadian history in university, she became interested in the lack of information on First Nations.

“In history studies, it’s always the first chapter in every book, and then it stops,” she says.

Now, as the executive director of the Songhees Nation, she’s passionate about furthering First Nation development and ensuring that Indigenous people “are part of the whole story” — now and going forward.

“We use property taxes to build up our governance and administrative structure,” she says, explaining how the Songhees Nation is furthering economic growth. “When you implement property taxation under the Indian Act and now under the Fiscal Management Act — it builds capacity within the Nation for self-government, and people stop thinking, ‘We are running government programs,’ to ‘We are a government.'”

Clarke is also focused on building relationships and promoting economic growth in the entire region.

The Songhees Nation was an early member of the South Island Prosperity Project (SIPP), which seemed a natural fit, given each shares a mandate for collaboration.

“The Songhees Nation showed incredible leadership and helped develop the model for SIPP,” says SIPP CEO Emilie de Rosenroll.

“Christina, in particular, has been so involved in reaching out to other First Nation communities — and you can’t undervalue that role in increasing engagement. She works hard to boost community and that translates into success for the Songhees Nation and the entire region.”

Douglas visited Clarke at the Songhees Wellness Centre to discuss the Nation’s philosophy toward business, the challenges of Indigenous entrepreneurship and a new era of economic growth.


What are the things that drive you in your job?

I’m driven personally in my career path by thinking about growing this ecosystem. This nation fits in the ecosystem, and the ecosystem needs work. We talked to other nations and we’re not competing if we both do tourism. We’re building the pie — so a bigger slice for everyone. I would just love to see more collaboration between the communities, and I think there are tons of opportunities there. For example, we’re talking to Beecher Bay First Nation about tourism projects. We could put tourism packages together that go all the way up the Island. Doing business together, as we’ve found with our other partners, just brings out the strength of everyone.

Other than tourism, where do you see the business potential for the Nation?

Our four main focuses are tourism, hospitality, property development and industrial marine.

In addition to tourism, how does collaboration play into these?

We have a partnership with Esquimalt Nation and the Ralmax Group of Companies for Salish Sea Industrial Services. They do dredging and pile driving and that sort of thing. It’s not a staff-intensive company, but Ralmax has been fabulous about actively pursuing an Indigenous workforce in all of their companies and having programs for those going to apprenticeships too. So that’s a really good example of a partnership.

Does the Nation also encourage Indigenous entrepreneurs in the technology industry?

It does. I think it’s not one of the main pillars because with the ones we chose, we had some natural talents and already had businesses in those industries. The Songhees Innovation Centre is partly about addressing that. Our anchor tenants are technology companies like Animikii. They are a great example of an Indigenous technology business, and our members witness their work and work with them — they are building a website for our tourism hospitality. They are talking about running a coding camp and that really speaks to youth and seeing an Indigenous person in that job really makes it real for them.

What are some of the challenges facing Indigenous entrepreneurs?

There are systems in place that are not designed for Indigenous business people to succeed. As an example, it’s very difficult to get a business licence if you are on a reserve and want to do business in another jurisdiction. We have a food truck and when we were trying to get a business licence, we struggled with each municipality saying we couldn’t do that. The staff who were working on it kept coming back to me, saying ‘we got another no.’ It wasn’t that people didn’t want to help, it was just that the default is ‘no’ when there is no path laid out. We’re always having to pave a new path.

The reserve system has a different set of laws and a different path forward, so just fitting in with these existing systems is a real challenge. For a new entrepreneur, starting up and not knowing how to navigate the system and getting a lot of nos, a lot of them will just give up, believing that it can’t be done. Building companies ourselves is building capacity and pushing past some of those barriers to help create a pathway for others to follow.

What frustrations do you have about the path forward?

I was more frustrated in the past than I am now. There have always been barriers, but there didn’t seem to be the will to break those barriers down. [With regards to] our previous Conservative government, a lot of their law making just increased the barriers. I think they were thinking they could mainstream everything, but there isn’t a path to go along that main stream — there is no entry path. We have these parallel systems. We do need parallel systems because we are coming from a different place but there needs to be cross-connections between them. It is an ecology. The barriers are still there, but the willingness to address them is also there.

What other changes have you seen?

There are more conversations between the communities happening. There is more of an awareness that our economy is an ecosystem and in order to be healthy, all parts of it need to fit together and work together. If you have one marginalized group outside of that, it hurts that group, but it hurts the system too. The system is not benefiting from what those people can bring to the table.

How does your involvement with SIPP play into that?

That is part of our outreach, and it is really led by Chief Ron Sam and his personal philosophy about the need for collaboration and working together. When he became chief, he started more outreach to other local governments, and that outreach led to business partnerships like the tourism and hospitality training with Camosun College. We very quickly realized the benefits of having conversations. Even if we are at a table to disagree, we’re having a voice in our region and the region is incredibly receptive to that.

What has come out of this collaboration?

Our Indigenous Connect program, sponsored by SIPP, runs out of the Innovation Centre in the upstairs of the Wellness Centre. They’re helping to bring speakers and facilitate meetings and letting it grow on its own. Right now, we are learning about business models that have entrepreneurship in them but also meet the expectations of bankers and investors. That’s one example of an action that is happening out of that partnership. A big part of it too is that we are being seen as a partner and as being invested in this region and its economy. It’s helping others not forget, so the Lekwungen people, whose territory this is, are not a footnote — they aren’t just the first chapter in the book but part of the whole story.

To help fund the building of the Songhees Wellness Centre, the Songhees Nation implemented the First Nations Goods and Services Tax (FNGST), a revenue-sharing agreement with the federal government.

This article is from the August/September 2018 issue of Douglas.