Chief focused on housing, education, communication

When William (Chip) Seymour was elected Chief of Cowichan Tribes last year, he took a grassroots approach, stressing the need to improve the relationship between Cowichan leaders and band members.

“One of the biggest concerns I heard during the last election was that there is a lack of communication between the band office and the community,” explained Seymour in a recent interview.

“One of the ways I said I would address this issue is by being in the band office everyday so that community members would have someone to talk to.”

Seymour is now six months into his term as chief, and his focus hasn’t wavered.

True to his word, he has been in the band office and available to the community for all but three days since becoming chief, when he attended an out-of-town forum on taxation.

“Once that communication is open, we can get the community to believe that we’re here to support them, and then they won’t be afraid to come here for help.”

Seymour previously spent eight years as Cowichan Tribes councillor, making him very familiar with the social and economic problems facing the Cowichan Peoples.

One of his top priorities is housing, with overcrowding a serious concern.

“We have situations where 18 or more people are living in a three or four-bedroom house.”

In these busy environments, it’s difficult for children and young people to find a quiet place to study and do their homework. Overcrowding also means septic systems are overused, which can lead to contamination.

The challenge is housing waitlists remain stubbornly high, and have even grown in recent decades to nearly 500 today.

But there is no quick fix.

Cowichan Tribes only holds a small amount of land communally, and most of this lacks infrastructure.  Individual band members hold the bulk of reserve land.

But Chief Seymour and staff are working with what they have, and are exploring apartment buildings as a possible solution, with a feasibility study currently underway.

“We are interested in the idea of small apartments that would accommodate young people, or apartments that would support small families or elders.”

One of Seymour’s other top priorities is education.  He is particularly concerned about the high dropout rates of students in Grades 7 to 9.

“We need to nail down what we can do to support our kids so that they’re able to stay in school.”

Seymour sees progress, however, citing Vancouver Island University’s new trades school opened last fall. Having more First Nations students entering the trades could benefit them as individuals, but also help the wider community.

“Looking down the road, we could one day have enough qualified workers in the community to form our own construction companies to build our own homes.”

Seymour’s term as chief is only for two years, leaving scarce time to tackle these issues.  But it’s a chance to start the process.

“What I am hoping to do in these two years is create that path so that we have a clear vision on how to build a safer community.”

Rob Douglas writes monthly for the Cowichan News Leader Pictorial.  He can be reached at douglas.robert.g@gmail.com

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