By Suzannah Kelly

Culture change in construction can be a spiky process. Work sites are large places with dozens or even hundreds of workers from different places, backgrounds, and trades. Efforts to get everyone singing from the same harmonious page can sometimes fall flat.

“Everyone has a life away from work, including personal stresses and past prejudices,” says Brenda Ireland, BCIB’s Executive Director, Respectful Onsite Initiative and Indigenous Relations. “We can bring that baggage with us including to our jobs. When workers bring theirs to site, it can make it hard for them to work with diverse colleagues in a collaborative way.”

What does an employer do on a site with dozens of workers, many from different backgrounds? On one of its projects, BCIB is looking to a Coast Salish tradition for a creative solution.

“We can’t resolve every person’s stresses before they come to the job site every day,” says Ireland, “so a team member suggested we try a Coast Salish tradition.”

Bubba Qwulshemut is a member of the Cowichan Tribes and BCIB’s Workforce Engagement and Support person on the hospital project. He asked if he could put up a large spike or hook at the entrance to the site.

“This is a teaching that was put forward always by our elders,” explains Bubba. “On any longhouse that’s Coast Salish, there’s a nail, a spike, a horseshoe. We want people to come in with good intentions, so we have somewhere to metaphorically hang stuff up. We didn’t ask, we told anybody that walked through those doors to leave their anger, their frustration, their hatred, outside on that spike. We ask them to hang up their bad feelings there. It’s to help protect the sacredness within the confines of the space.”

Bubba thought the new hospital is also a space worthy of protection. “This healing place is going to be here for so many generations,” he says. But he didn’t know how to bring the Coast Salish teaching of the longhouse spike to the construction project. “I told myself, if it’s meant to be it will come together.”

And come together it did – in just a couple of days, just in time for the big project staff holiday celebration.

On a Monday morning in December, Bubba ran into a community member and friend, Joanne, at the local community centre and they got to chatting. He shared his vision of a spike on a wooden pole at the entrance to the project site, and that he was at a loss about how to make it happen.

“We began talking,” recalls Joanne. “He was telling me how his life had changed and all of the good things that he was involved with at BCIB, and he told me he wanted to bring a teaching to the job site. He said, ‘Above the door to the longhouse, we have a stake where you hang what you don’t need to bring into a sacred space.’ I said, ‘Why don’t you ask Richard to forge the stake?’”

Joanne’s husband, Richard, is an artist ironsmith. She went home and told him about Bubba’s idea. That was Monday night. By Wednesday morning, Richard’s iron hook had been hammered into the freshly hewn red cedar pole.

“It happened that fast because creator wanted it to happen,” says Bubba. “It was meant to be.”

That’s probably a fair assessment. When this was all happening, Richard’s workshop didn’t have any power. “I couldn’t run my trip hammer,” he recalls. “I couldn’t forge anything. But I had a hook from another project I had worked on from before, and I thought it would be just perfect for this.”

Also waiting for a purpose in Richard’s shop was a 12’ foot long red cedar log. Richard and Joanne shared that the log came from their home by the Koksilah River. They said, “This Cedar came from Quw’utsun land.” Richard added, “Bubba mentioned he didn’t even actually have anything to put the hook into, and I remembered that I had this cedar log in my shop for years waiting for its purpose. The stars are always aligned. You just have to notice when these opportunities come up, and you can make a contribution. You can seize the moment.”

On that Wednesday, 300 tradespeople and project management gathered onsite for a hot meal to celebrate the skilled workforce and their progress. Workers had opportunity to win 50/50 draws and prizes. The celebration was sponsored by the prime contractor, EllisDon, with donations from various partners: United Rentals, Houle, Fred Walsh Ltd., Trotter & Morton, Flynn, Adam’s Tarp and Tools, White Cap, Surespan, Hilti, Milwaukee, Industrial Scaffold, and BCIB.

Bubba opened the event with a song from his father and an explanation of the spike and its plaque, which reads:

 

For generations to come, this will be a sacred place of healing.

We come together to build a hospital and the work needs to be done with hands that are free of harmful eelings like hatred, prejudice, anger, and fear.

This spike represents a place to hang what weighs you down so that you enter the site with an open mind and heart.

In this way, the spirit of healing, respect, and love can be built into the hospital.

When you leave, you can pick the weight up again…

or walk on without it.

 

When asked how much he’d like to be paid, Richard refused payment. “It is an honor to be able to contribute to this,” he said. “This is all about community. Consider the wisdom in these words on the plaque. That’s, that’s what it’s all about.”

Looking over to the partly constructed new hospital, Joanne added, “We’re all here to heal. We’re all here to support one another’s healing. This hook in the Cedar places a seed in our community asking us to move forward in a respectful, loving way. I’m thankful to the ancestors of the land and thankful that Bubba was the vessel to carry this teaching forward.”

Bubba won’t take the credit so easily.

“This isn’t about me,” he says. “I was deeply honored to be bringing a teaching from our longhouse, which is so sacred to our people. So that’s what’s special for me today. And the way that it came together, this is made possible from all the hard work of many people before us.”

The post and spike will stand at the entrance to the project site for the duration of construction.

 

Bubba is a respected Quw’utsun traditional speaker and certified Red Seal plumber. He is also the BCIB Workforce Engagement and Support on the Cowichan District Hospital Replacement Project. In his role, Bubba provides transition-to-work and other supports to Indigenous employees, and on the jobsite, he provides guidance and assistance to all BCIB workers based on cultural teachings, experiences, and wisdom.