Tsawout Longhouse Groundbreaking
(Tsawout First Nation/Facebook)

Members of the Tsawout First Nation broke ground on Monday afternoon in a long-anticipated first step towards the construction of a new longhouse.

The Tsawout Bighouse burned down in 2009 after standing for over 20 years at the heart of the nation’s territory around Saanichton Bay.

“I think we wanted to get it located in exactly the same spot,” said Mavis Underwood, a Councilor of the Tsawout First Nation, in an interview with Victoria Buzz.

“A lot of people have been pressuring to replace the Bighouse.”

The new structure will be built on a site backing up to the Pullock Subdivision, and will include new washroom facilities, a dining hall, and the main bighouse facility.

Underwood says the process has been long in the undertaking to ensure the Bighouse meets building code standards, and to make a facility that can adapt to new community needs.

“I think this is built out of the needs and hopes of our young people,” she said.

“The bulk of our population, of most First Nations, is 35 and under. For them, there’s a real energy, a hope that the future will be better.”

Tsawout Chief and Council have partnered with a number of architects, engineers and contractors as the construction moves forward, including Gwaii Engineering, Built Contracting, and Herold Engineering.

Part of these partnerships are long-term plans to mentor and apprentice workers where possible, and to hopefully transition those workers to careers in trades.

“That’s what we’ve been doing, is trying to get some of our young people back to help with this project,” said Underwood. “It could serve as a step-ladder into careers, or apprenticeships, or being part of a crew.”

That employment transition is a reflection of the healing process the community is experiencing with the loss and subsequent construction of the Tsawout Bighouse, Underwood says.

Following the fire in 2009, she says the Nation saw an increase in mental health issues, and some community members were lost to suicide and depression.

“The Bighouse is so central, it’s the heartbeat of your community, the heartbeat of your ancestors in your community,” Underwood said.

“When the Bighouse burnt down, many in the community heard the crying that was in the air. It was the spirits of ancestors.”

She says that the Bighouse serves as a place for events, education, and to provide memorial services and ceremonies.

It can also be a vital part of the professional practice of decolonization. Classes of law students, nurses, and doctors have been invited to Bighouses in Tsawout and other First Nations to learn about how to decolonize their practices.

“When we look at systemic racism and challenge it, we need to be able to have people come to us in a safe way and ask questions and learn about us as distinct people and honour our history rather than telling us to put it aside,” said Underwood.

Construction of the Bighouse is expected to take between one-and-a-half to two years. Underwood says that the Nation is hoping to speed up that process to one year, but to reach that goal they will need support from neighbouring communities like Victoria.

She says companies interested in sponsoring parts of the Bighouse, like the kitchen or washroom facilities, should get in touch with Tsawout First Nation to discuss possibilities.

The Nation is a registered charity and donated services would also be welcome to help build the Bighouse. Tsawout First Nation recently put out a call for timber donations towards the construction, and Underwood says they are still in need.

She hopes that generous neighbours will recognize the community’s need to have a place for gatherings, events, and memorial services, all vital parts of preserving and celebrating Tsawout culture.

“Because of residential school, because of child welfare interventions, many people have lost their ties to generations that went ahead of them,” said Underwood.

“[Bighouses] help us realize how closely related we are, up and down the coast to Oregon and Washington. We are Coast Salish People.”

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