Case Study: Cowichan Social Planning Council

Kathleen Heggie

In my position, I was fortunate to get to work with two social enterprise projects: Cultural Connections, through Social Planning Cowichan (SPC), and the Xwaaqw’um Project. Through both, the primary social issues that my work addressed were the sociocultural and socioeconomic divisions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people locally and across the country, and the history of why these exist. These issues are important for many reasons, but essentially one need only look to the centuries of colonial oppression forced upon Indigenous peoples in Canada to understand why. The impact of these relations continues to negatively impact Indigenous peoples, who are subjected to much higher rates of poverty, suicide, unemployment, etc. across the country. It will require an effort on the part of all Canadians, not just Indigenous peoples, to reconcile this past and move forwards together to create a better country for all of us.


The motivation behind both SPC’s and Xwaaqw’um’s social enterprises is to lessen these divides through education, empathy-building and Indigenous cultural revitalization.  Engaging with Cowichan or Hul’qumi’num culture both strengthens the First Nations communities’ connections to their culture, and provides opportunities for non-Indigenous Canadians to learn about it. Doing so together helps promote reconciliation and relationship building between both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, which strengthens the community as a whole.

Organization Details

Organization Name Social Planning Cowichan
Student Position Co-op Research Student
Organization Purpose Social Vision, Youth, Affordable Housing, Regional Poverty

Both social enterprises are still in their development stage, and each was instigated by a particular event that highlighted the need for community building.


Cultural Connections is currently operating through Social Planning Cowichan, which is reliant on core funding from the CVRD and other granting agencies. The social enterprise is run on a fee-for-service basis, which covers the cost of running each workshop or program. Overhead costs, such as staff wages and office space, continue to be covered through SPC.

Live Project


The key players behind Cultural Connections include Michelle Staples (Social Planning Cowichan’s Executive Director) and a group of Quw’utsun’ Elders. Working together, they carried forward the Cultural Connections idea and began running it through Social Planning Cowichan. Each plays a unique and central role in facilitating Cultural Connections. Most of these Elders are Residential School Survivors who share their experiences with insight, wisdom and compassion that are key to educating others on Canada’s colonial past.

The main, organizing force behind the Xwaaqw’um Project is Joe Akerman, Project Coordinator. Of Cowichan ancestry, Joe has deeply rooted ties to this area as his family inhabited Xwaaqw’um (Burgoyne Bay) for generations before him. With the guidance of certain Quw’utsun’ Elders, he conceptualized the project and has since worked to ensure it continues to grow and succeed, with big thanks to the many volunteers and support of the Salt Spring community.

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The story behind Cultural Connections began when the North American Indigenous Games came to Duncan, BC in 2008. A big event for this little town, it took the whole community working together to pull it off. Unfortunately, strong divisions within the community were revealed in the process, largely in the form of deeply embedded racism towards Indigenous populations. Recognizing the need to bridge large cultural gaps, the Games inspired a program called “Cultural Connections Cowichan” as an effort to bring people together. The cultural bridging work that was begun was then gifted as a legacy project to Social Planning Cowichan (SPC), a non-profit organization that has since carried the initiative forward. Almost ten years later, and with over 3000 of its community members having participated, SPC is transforming Cultural Connections into a social enterprise. Its mandate is to use experiential education and cross-cultural collaboration to bring individuals and organizations together to learn about Canada’s past and present relationships with First Nations people, and to together move towards more cohesive local, regional and national communities through relationship building.


For the Xwaaqw’um Project, the Salt Spring Island community came together over Grace Islet, a smaller island nearby. Grace Islet is home to a sacred burial site, and when a private landowner began constructing a house right on top in 2011, the community came together to pressure both municipal and provincial to stop its destruction. Not only has the home been since deconstructed, but the community bonding over Indigenous cultural revitalization has continued and fed into the Xwaaqw’um Project. Starting in 2015, Xwaaqw’um (Burgoyne Bay, Salt Spring Island) was the site of an initiative to strengthen culture, language, relationships and the natural environment. With the guidance of Cowichan Elders, family and many supporters, a variety of cultural gatherings on the land have been organized for the Cowichan and Salt Spring communities. Its mission is to support Hul’qumi’num culture, language, and healthy stewardship of the land, water and relationships at Xwaaqw’um through Indigenous youth camps, reconciliation workshops and other community based, indigenous cultural activities.

For both projects, the social enterprise is only one aspect of their overall operations.

“Cultural Connections” offers a multi-phase process for building relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous community members, run in collaboration with several Quw’utsun’ (Cowichan) Elders. It is designed to bring community members together to create respectful and trusting foundations for a stronger community, with the idea that recognition (of our shared history) must come before reconciliation. The first component is cultural competency training in the form of decolonizing workshops, called “Understanding the Village.” By simulating the process of colonization and hearing about the Elders’ own firsthand experiences, these experiential workshops help participants deepen their understanding of the effects and history of colonization, the continued impact of culture loss, and how we can move forward together. After an honest examination of past events leading up to where the community is now, participants are invited to the second phase, “Cowichan 101”. These monthly gatherings provide community members with an opportunity to expand their awareness and appreciation for Cowichan culture, both in tradition and how it lives on today. Events and activities vary greatly, from cedar weaving to drum making, to canoe journeys, language learning and more.


The Xwaaqw’um Project consists of a variety of different land-based cultural activities and gatherings that are organized and developed on an ongoing basis. Through a feasibility study completed throughout 2015, some of these activities have been identified as best suited to a social enterprise model. For example, canoe journeys, guided nature tours, and the sale of arts and crafts could be offered to the local Salt Spring community or tourists from further afar. Money raised from these activities will help fund Aboriginal youth camps that are at the core of the project. This provides Aboriginal youth with a space to step away from the pressures of reserve and city life and immerse themselves in local Indigenous culture and the natural beauty of Xwaaqw’um with the support of Elders, peers and caring knowledge keepers. The project also provides opportunities for Aboriginal youth to develop confidence and leadership abilities, as well as skills that will serve them in life and the workplace in the future.

Governance: Both enterprises are Elder-led

While Cultural Connections is under the direction of SPC’s board of directors, the primary advisers are the Elders who run the program and whose guidance is sought for every phase of the program. Their knowledge is required in order to respectfully operate this program according to local Indigenous traditions, knowledge and practices.


The Xwaaqw’um Project is similarly directed by the guidance of several Quw’utsun’ Elders. As part of their feasibility study, several governance structures were considered, including non-profit society, registered charity and Community Contribution Company (C3). In the meantime, the project continues to operate under an arrangement with the West Coast Islands’ Stewardship and Conservancy. Another option would be to operate under Social Planning Cowichan, alongside Cultural Connections.

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For both organizations, impact measurement is made difficult by the socially and culturally dependent nature of what they’re trying to achieve. However, quantitative measurements will include the number of community members who participate in programs and events. For Cultural Connections, the number of organizations who use the Indigenous relationship building social enterprise guide, and who partake in the Indigenous Employment Training Program will also be measured.

Live Project

The relationship between Cultural Connections and the Xwaaqw’um Project itself exemplifies Cross Sector Collaboration

Due to their aligned goals and values, as well as an overlapping involvement of the same community members in both projects, Cultural Connections and the Xwaaqw’um Project have established a partnership. Cultural Connections engages as many staff from the government, other nonprofits and other social enterprises as possible by encouraging them to partake in both programs in order to gain a better understanding of how to engage, represent and collaborate with Indigenous community members. The Xwaaqw’um Project works closely with BC Parks in running activities at Xwaaqw’um, which is currently under a BC Parks Management Plan. Cultural Connections is also working on two other programs that will be offered to other businesses, non-profits or communities to help them develop their own Indigenous relationship-building approaches (including an Indigenous Employment Training Program and an Indigenous relationship building social enterprise guide). As Cultural Connections expands geographically (which is part of its transition towards being a social enterprise) it will reach out and engage more organizations in many different communities, since a belief inherent in this work is that reconciliation requires efforts from all members and organizations in our society. The hope is to sustain this effort by generating more revenue through running our programs more frequently and in more locations.


Challenges & Opportunities


For both the Xwaaqw’um Project and Cultural Connections, the biggest long-term challenge is at the heart of what they aim to achieve – creating the deeply-rooted change in Canadian culture and society that is necessary to establishing and maintaining better relationships with Indigenous peoples, and to create the space and opportunities for Indigenous cultures to prosper. Short-term challenges include convincing those who are most in need of Indigenous cultural education to participate in the opportunities that both Cultural Connections and Xwaaqw’um provide. As with most start-up enterprises, securing consistent funding is also a short-term challenge. What’s needed from other sectors and the public is a willingness to participate in these programs, which requires an opening of the mind and heart.


Short-term opportunities for both Cultural Connections and the Xwaaqw’um Project include a host of activities and events planned for the summer of 2016, some of which will be in collaboration with each other (e.g. an upcoming canoe journey for Cowichan 101 participants to Xwaaqw’um). Cultural Connections plans on visiting three new Vancouver Island communities to test the feasibility of our Indigenous relationship building social enterprise guide this summer (funding dependent). At Xwaaqw’um, events with local schools (from elementary to university levels) are planned for students to come and partake in learning opportunities, as well as other events that will engage an increasing scope of community members from Salt Spring and beyond. Long-term opportunities for Cultural Connections include continuing to engage and expand to new communities across Vancouver Island, throughout British Columbia and eventually nationally, as well as connecting the communities we have worked with together to collaborate at a regional level.

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