Tseshaht First Nation in Port Alberni will be building a new community centre, thanks to a $3.4 million grant through the provincial and federal governments.
The First Nation announced plans on Friday, Aug. 19 to build a new community centre to replace the former Somass Hall, with financial assistance through the Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program. The grant will cover up to 75 percent of the project costs, while Tseshaht will provide the remaining 25 percent.
Somass Hall, which was located on Gallic Road on the Tseshaht reserve, was demolished a few years ago after it was deemed unsafe for use. Prior to that, it was a gathering place for the Tseshaht First Nation that hosted dance practices, potlatches and Nuu-chah-nulth naming ceremonies.
“This place was at the heart of our community,” said Tseshaht First Nation Elected Chief Councillor Ken Watts (Wahmeesh) during the announcement on Friday, which took place on the former Somass Hall site. “Many of you will remember dance practices here with our neighbours, singing together as one. This place meant more to many of us than we can describe.”
Watts said that the nation is experiencing the compounding effects of both the COVID-19 pandemic and the ground scanning work that is currently underway at the former Alberni Indian Residential School (AIRS) site on the Tseshaht reserve.
“This investment is a welcome sign of hope when the need is at an all-time high for children, youth, elders, community members, residential school survivors and many others,” he said.
The new community hall will be an approximately 7,000 square foot building, similar to the size of the old Somass Hall. The current Tseshaht cultural centre is too small for dance practices, said Watts, while Maht-Mahs gym is sometimes too large, so this will be a “perfect fit” for the community.
The hall will include a commercial kitchen, facilities, breakout and storage rooms, washrooms, modern HVAC and electrical systems, a parking lot and landscaping around the site. The building will provide cultural opportunities for all Nuu-chah-nulth people and much-needed programming for the youth, elders, children and families of Tseshaht First Nation.
“Connecting with elders, youth and family members is a key part of building a strong and healthy community,” said Josie Osborne, MLA for Mid Island-Pacific Rim, in a government press release. “The new Somass Hall will bring people together for ceremony and celebrations, for storytelling and sharing food, and it will create lasting memories.”
The announcement on Friday was followed by celebration, as Tseshaht singers danced and drummed. Watts said the funding application has been “several years” in the waiting.
“We’re thankful to see this moving forward,” he added. “We needed a feel-good story, more now than ever.”
The old “Somass Hall” sign was kept after demolition of the building and will be hung up on the new community hall, said Watts. The artwork that once lined the walls of Somass Hall was also kept and will be raised once again.
“We knew the day would come when we would get to put it back up,” said Watts.