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Founder hopes the centre will become a model for entrepreneur-driven economic development in First Nations communities

The Songhees Innovation Centre opened in January on the top floor of the stunning 55,000 square-foot Songhees Wellness Centre, which overlooks the Esquimalt harbour on the southern tip of Vancouver Island.

For Ojibwa technology entrepreneur Jeff Ward, finding a reasonably-priced space to work and collaborate with fellow Indigenous programmers hasn't been easy. Office space in Victoria, where his digital communications and software company Animikii Indigenous Technology is based, can be expensive for startups. There are few dedicated spaces in the city, or in the entire province for that matter, for tech-focused First Nations entrepreneurs.

That problem spurred Mr. Ward two years ago to approach the Esquimalt-based Songhees Nation with a plan for an innovation space on the band's urban reserve just outside of downtown Victoria. The result is the Songhees Innovation Centre, which opened in January on the top floor of the stunning 55,000 square-foot Songhees Wellness Centre overlooking Esquimalt harbour.

"We have a growing demographic of young talented Indigenous students that are graduating through some amazing technology and business programs," Mr. Ward said. "Wouldn't it be cool if there was [a place for them to work] in an Indigenous community led by an Indigenous community?"

Christina Clark, executive director of the Songhees Nation, said she sees the innovation centre as a way for the First Nation community to achieve some of its economic development goals on its own.

The centre is modelled on the kind of co-working spaces increasingly popular among digital startups and freelancers. Several anchor tenants, including Animikii, have year-long leases on permanent desks in the open-concept space; other desks are available for businesses or freelancers to rent on a monthly or even daily basis.

"We think a lot will happen if just two people are sitting side by side and working on something and chatting," Mr. Ward said. "They find out they know similar people, they can connect people up to other people, or find out they can joint venture on something."

The broader hope is that the innovation centre will become a model for entrepreneur-driven economic development in First Nations communities, particularly in urban reserve settings. Indigenous employees of companies based on reserve are eligible to receive income tax breaks – a boon for Indigenous companies competing to attract tech-savvy talent, Mr. Ward said. Being based within a First Nations community can also open up opportunities to secure contracts with band governments.

"As our governments are getting more and more sophisticated, we need these [technology] tools. But there's a lot of mainstream tools that just don't fit," said Christina Clarke, executive director of Songhees Nation. "If we get Indigenous people coming up with solutions for some of the issues that we have, then we can create a virtuous loop of keeping some revenues in the community."

Robyn Ward, Jordyn Hrenyk and Dakota Lightning work on projects at the Songhees Innovation Centre.

Ms. Clarke also sees the innovation centre as a way for Songhees Nation to achieve some of its own economic development goals. Band members get a discounted rate to use the space, and Ms. Clarke hopes that members who graduate from the Wellness Centre's various education programs will become tenants of the co-working space.

"If they're taking an entrepreneurship program and they come up and see all kinds of entrepreneurs working, it's much more real to them, especially to see Indigenous companies up and working successfully," Ms. Clarke said.

From the start, the innovation centre has been supported by a number of local economic development organizations, such as the South Island Prosperity Project and the Victoria Innovation, Advanced Technology and Entrepreneurship Council.

"I think that Victoria is ready for truly engaging with First Nations in a way they historically haven't been," Ms. Clarke said. "But [there isn't] really a forum for it to happen, they don't quite yet know how to reach out … So we're hoping this becomes a touchpoint for facilitating that communication, without us having to go there and get lost in it."

Emilie de Rosenroll, chief executive officer of the South Island Prosperity Project, echoed this, adding that increased ties between First Nations communities and the wider Victoria business community will benefit everyone.

The centre is modelled on the co-working spaces which are increasingly popular among digital startups and freelance workers.

"Helping more Indigenous businesspeople thrive in the tech world makes particular sense, she said.

The tech sector, after all, "is actually the largest sector now in Greater Victoria, so we're no longer all about tea and flowers."

Tenants are only just beginning to move into the centre, but the collaborative nature of the space has already begun to work its magic, Mr. Ward said. Before the centre even opened, he was developing plans with fellow tenant Lawrence Lewis, whose company OneFeather designs voting registration software for First Nations governments.

"When he came to check out the space and explore the opportunity, within 15 minutes we had four ideas to collaborate on projects or cost share in the development of apps," Mr. Ward said. "It just so turns out that he uses the same coding language to develop apps as we do, so just by being in the same space, there will be a lot learning back and forth."