After spending 27 years with the Songhees Nation, serving as senior finance manager, executive director and finally as inaugural CEO of the Songhees Development Corporation, Christina Clarke has learned that new doors open when she follows her passion.
As someone who is proud of her NunatuKavut (Inuit Métis) and Irish-Canadian ancestry, she explains that she didn’t get to grow up in her Indigenous culture. But when a position came available with the Songhees Nation, she saw a chance to learn more about her Indigenous heritage.
That initial welcome from the Songhees was instrumental; Clarke soon learned how much we all have to gain by opening ourselves up to an Indigenous world view and collaborating for a better future. When another position came up at the new Indigenous Prosperity Centre, Clarke saw an opportunity to use the skills and knowledge she had developed — while continuing to grow.
As the new executive director of the Indigenous Prosperity Centre, Christina Clarke believes in the power of collaboration and knows that we all have much to gain by opening ourselves to an Indigenous world view.
Did you come into that first Songhees position with an understanding of the Indigenous perspective?
Whether or not I was raised with Indigenous thinking is hard to untangle because of my family history. But working with the Songhees Nation for 27 years has allowed me to understand their world view.
I’ve been able to interpret that thinking in both directions. I remember being in a band office, and a car pulled up filled with people in suits. The suits walked into the office, but didn’t explain why they were there. Instead, they said what they thought we wanted to hear. After they left, everyone turned to me to explain what they wanted.
That’s when I understood the ways of doing business can be different, and being able to create understanding is the first step.
Was it this desire to build bridges of understanding that brought you to the Prosperity Centre?
The Songhees Nation was an early adopter of the South Island Prosperity Partnership, which was designed to include First Nations right from the beginning, instead of as an afterthought. So, as a result, I became a board member.
My objective was to look at how we could be more inclusive of Indigenous business and the Indigenous economy — to look at how we could create more cross-connections and understanding, so that Indigenous businesses thrive and our region thrives as a result. It’s an approach to economic development that’s a very focused partnership; something that I really believe in. So when this position came up, it was a natural extension of the work that I was already doing.
What does partnership and collaboration look like?
What it means is connecting the people who each have a piece of the puzzle. Say, for example, the Songhees want to develop tourism opportunities — each area where there’s a tourism activity is a place where we can engage with other stakeholders.
One example would be the Songhees islands, Tl’ches off Oak Bay. To develop tourism there might mean partnering and collaborating with a government agency, or a school, the Oak Bay Beach Hotel or the Oak Bay Marina. It means building connections that include First Nations.
Why is this kind of collaboration important?
I think it can be part of reconciliation. When business is a mutual thing we do together, we gain an understanding of one another. So economic development is a really great space to do that work. You’re motivated to come together for a common goal.
What is the role of the Prosperity Centre in making this happen?
On one level these relationships need to be organic and can take time. But there needs to be a space for it. So, by communicating what we’re doing, we offer an intersection between Indigenous business, industry, local government and the provincial government. It can be difficult; we’re still learning about each community’s goals and how to support them. But the economy needs all of us.
What does prosperity mean from an Indigenous perspective?
From an Indigenous world view, prosperity is defined more broadly than simply financial. It means supporting the well-being of yourself, your community and the environment. We often say it’s about planning for seven generations. So we’re thinking about the children who come next; we look at the world they’re coming into. So that long-term thinking when applied to economic development makes for far more sustainable business practices.
Why is now the right time for this work?
I think worldwide there’s been a realization that we need to change the way we’re doing things. The other piece is that with the discovery of the burials at residential schools, most Canadians are finally saying, “Now I get it. Now I understand why conditions are the way they are on reserves.”
They realize it’s time to fix what’s broken and understand that we have a chance to finally get things right between all of us.