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All-women construction company a first for Canada

FORT ST. JAMES, British Columbia - T'sekhu Construction Ltd. of Fort St. James began with 12 women entering a construction training program.

After many months of training, 12 graduates completed the course and entered the workforce. The eight-month program through this winter produced four apprentice carpenters who entered a business partnership under the name T'sekhu (equals women in Carrier language) Construction Ltd.

Other graduates have branched into other employment opportunities. Aileen Prince, Economic Development Coordinator for Nakaz'dli First Nation, managed the initiative to produce future contracting services in the community and territory.

"Four permanent partners are opening a company to build houses and do renovations," Prince said. "They will find lots of renovation work."

The training program culminated with complete construction of a new house for an elder of the Nakaz'dli village. (The Nakaz'dli First Nation occupies a reservation beside the town of Fort St. James and owns other reservations in the territory of central British Columbia, Canada.)

From the beginning of the program, Prince watched a unique group of women muster the courage to participate in the learning challenge. "No one supported them," she said. "To begin with, the men thought it was hilarious. That has changed. Now we have four apprentice carpenters opening a company. They will operate under a journeyman carpenter's supervision, who they will pay as an employee, for one year.

"In early March they finished a business plan. In April 2000 they will begin to put their services to work."

The women were given an introduction to computers and lessons in basic bookkeeping.

"Some had never worked outside their homes. Some had been secretaries. One woman had worked in village maintenance. She was the only one familiar with manual labor, " Prince said.

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She added that the women had one key proponent of the program. Vincent Prince of Aboriginal Business Development Corp. of Prince George, B.C., overcame early doubts when he saw the enthusiasm and abilities of the women.

"By the end of the program he suggested we were thinking too small with the business plan," she said. "He watched 12 women endure eight months of daily training with very little encouragement or return. For the last four months they received a modest monthly allowance. For the first four months they received nothing at all."

The women persisted and conducted renovations for elders and on community infrastructure. Funding for a number of projects came from various government agencies.

"The students were out working every day. It was a great group," Aileen Prince said. "They never skipped out, and they brought energy to the job every day. They replaced roofs, windows, and doors. They reshaped walls, dry-walled, painted, built cabinets, and accomplished a whole range of projects."

The final project was a small, one-bedroom house built from footings to chimney, fully finished inside and out. Aileen Prince said, "The Nakaz'dli administration owns the house, which was built for $16,000 (Cdn.). Meanwhile the housing situation is bad. We recently got approval for a 40-lot subdivision. It will take four years to fill it."

At the moment 80 people in Fort St. James and Nakaz'dli await housing.

"We have some very crowded houses," Aileen Prince said. "The vacancy rate in the town of Fort St. James is zero. Building growth is stagnant but they need to accommodate loggers and silvaculture workers. I don't think it is very likely that the problem is going away soon."

She said the program produced beautiful results while it lasted. "The women did awesome jobs on renovations. It was beautifully done work."

T'sekhu Construction Ltd. faces a future full of opportunities. "The company hired a construction supervisor to continue the training under apprenticeship rules. They hired the same man who was the instructor. He was an amazing instructor." She laughed, adding, "The women gave him such a hard time."

T'sekhu Construction Ltd. has become the first all-women all-Aboriginal construction company in Canada.