VIU Cowichan's Construction Students Give Back to the Community

George Harry, a VIU Cowichan Carpentry Foundation program graduate and Malahat Nation Councillor, stands in front of the fifth house being built on Malahat lands in partnership with VIU.

August 30, 2016 - 12:00pm

Campus has a long history of fostering community partnerships to give students hands-on experiences

Three years ago, for the first time, George Harry put the key in the lock of his new home on Malahat Nation land.

This moment was particularly poignant for Harry, who had graduated from the Carpentry Foundation program at Vancouver Island University’s (VIU’s) Cowichan campus and was a first-year apprentice at the time, because he and other VIU carpentry students built the home from the ground up, thanks to a partnership between the University and Malahat Nation.

“I helped build my own house and my brother’s house through VIU’s program,” says Harry, who is now an elected Malahat Nation Councillor as well as working for a Nanoose Bay-based contractor. “To actually put a key in the door and unlock it and say it was mine, I don’t think words can explain that. When you get your first house under your belt, you take a lot of pride in that. Being able to do that kind of thing makes you feel really good.”

VIU Cowichan has a long history of fostering partnerships with community groups in the region – mostly non-profits – to give students a chance to get some real-life experience under their belts. In exchange, the community groups get help with a project they might not otherwise have been able to complete. 

“The hands-on work was what we needed,” says Harry. “A book can tell you how to do it, but actually doing it gives you an idea about what it would really be like on a construction site, and all of the skills and knowledge that comes out of the books really kicks in. That’s the best way to show somebody what working in the industry is like.”

VIU’s partnership with Malahat Nation started with Harry and his brother’s houses. Students are now building a fifth house on Malahat lands, and Harry hopes to keep that partnership alive after the latest house is finished.

“Housing is a big priority for us,” he says. “We’re running short of housing and room for our people, and this partnership is an opportunity to bring them home. We also want to make sure we are helping out first-year apprentices, and inviting people onto our nation’s lands, showing them what it’s like here.”

There have been many partnerships between VIU Cowichan and local groups over the years, says Keith Chicquen, Instructional Director. 

“Getting our students involved with real projects that add value to our community also adds value to our programs,” he says. “If we just stuck with building projects in class, we would have to build things and then disassemble them. With the community partnerships, usually with non-profit groups, they get a project completed, and we save on the cost of materials.”

Students in VIU Cowichan’s Introduction to Trades program recently built two large storage sheds for Cowichan Green Community Society, a non-profit group that focuses on food security projects in the region, and did some playground upgrades for Parkside Academy, a non-profit early learning and child care facility. Other recent projects include building renovations at Providence Farm, a non-profit therapeutic community; a large storage shed for School District 79, with materials donated by Buckerfields; and some cedar planter boxes and a covered play area for Cowichan Tribes Daycare Centre.

In the Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Mechanic Program, recent projects include repairs to a food truck for Taste of Germany, setting up a meat-curing chamber for Cure Artisan Meats and Cheese, and designing a walk-in freezer for Garland’s Smokehouse.

“We have projects lined up now because people want to take advantage of these opportunities – they find us now,” says Chicquen. “Mostly, local businesses understand that we’re training future employees for them and the best way to do that is to get these real-life experiences. This campus started back in the ‘70s as a continuing education delivery site and lots of that had to do with making community connections and forming partnerships with First Nations groups. It’s just become part of the spirit of this campus. We try to tie ourselves as closely as we can to the local community.”

Julie Scurr, President of the Duncan Cowichan Chamber of Commerce, says these partnerships are good for the community: “The Chamber is all about connections and value on investment. This is an excellent example of how shared investment across sectors realizes both social and economic benefits,” she says. “The structures last for decades, and students graduate with what employers value the most – real-world experience. Everybody wins.”

To learn more about the programs and services on offer at VIU Cowichan, visit



Jenn McGarrigle, Communications Officer, Vancouver Island University

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Tags: In the Community