by Sarah Richler, South Island Literacy
Delivering Business and Digital Skills in Community with Evolving Economy
I would like to underscore that Sooke is a community with a strong sense of place. Historically, Sooke has been seen as a wilder and more unruly place by other communities on South Vancouver Island – Sooke residents were the outsiders on the South Island. As an isolated and traditionally impoverished community, initiatives in our area over the years have been developed by volunteers, and a strong local sentiment remains today that Sooke is a community that takes care of its own.
This sense of place has transmuted itself today into a pride in its history as the working class community of Victoria. For example, driving around Sooke you can’t help but notice the ubiquitous local bumper sticker, V0S 1N0. People wear this bumper sticker on their car to signal they are from Sooke, and it is my belief, to signal their pride in their community. Another example is the local company 642 Wear which makes clothing emblazoned with 642. This harkens back to when people had telephone land lines, and in Sooke, everyone’s telephone number began with 642. It was a custom when you gave out your phone number to only give the last four digits, and as a population migration occurred, and Sooke grew, giving out the last four digits of your phone number remained a way for locals to separate themselves from newcomers, who didn’t have a 642. What does this represent? It is my contention that these are indicators of a very strong sense of place for Sooke residents, which is reinforced by relative geographic isolation, and a history of lack of services and poverty which has necessitated ingenuity and community resilience. Today people in Sooke are able to commute (with difficulty) for work into Victoria, but express their pride of place as a marker of identity on their cars and in clothing. Residency in Sooke could be seen as being a part of a certain tribe.
The lay of the land
Sooke is a small seaside community located on the southwest tip of Vancouver Island. It is reached by one two-lane highway, approximately 38 km distance from Victoria, the closest major urban area with health and other extended services. The Sooke region is comprised of the District of Sooke, with a population of roughly 13,000, and outlying areas including East Sooke, Otter Point, Jordan River and Port Renfrew. The District of Sooke is located on the traditional territory of the T’Souke First Nations, who have two reserves in the area. The town amenities include a library, a recreation centre, a museum, a family resource centre, an employment centre, retail stores, four elementary schools, one middle school and one secondary school/community school. The total population for the region is approximately 17,000 across a 90-kilometer span of mostly coastline and forest (Statistics Canada Census, 2016).
Port Renfrew is the last community at the end of Highway 14. It is another tourism based economy, and is both the starting location for the famous West Coast Trail and a number of fishing charters and adventure touring businesses. This area is the ancestral home to the Pacheedaht First Nations.
In my interview with Mayor Tait, she explained that the primary focus in municipal government at present is to develop the local economy in Sooke, and that the principal mandate of Sooke’s new Chief Administrative Officer is to increase local economic development. Sooke has recently acquired the fibre optic cabling that would support this initiative. In addition, the community has a burgeoning craft sector, with examples such as the award-winning Sheringham Distillery, Sooke Brewing and Sooke Oceanside Brewery, several cannabis retail providers and the local Canna Park for micro-growers to service the craft/artisanal marijuana market creating small pockets of employment.
Alongside this burgeoning craft industry in Sooke, the culinary industry is also evolving and growing in Sooke. The Sooke Harbour House played a seminal role in creating a local food movement across North America. After their tenure at the Sooke Harbour House, many former Sooke Harbour House chefs chose to settle down in Sooke and start businesses, including Edward Tuson of our local butchery, Black Market Meats, Ollie Kienast and Brooke Fader of of our local fine dining restaurant, Wild Mountain, and others. All these industries are supported by the local citizens, but they also depend on tourism. Traditionally in Sooke, this tourism has centred on recreational fishing. Finding a way to reinvigorate the local recreational sport fishing economy is an important piece in sustaining Sooke’s tourism economy.
Geography and infrastructure
In 2019, I began graduate studies in Communications at Royal Roads, and I closed my two businesses, teaching yoga and the skincare company Wild Hill Botanicals, to begin a contract as literacy outreach coordinator (LOC) for Sooke. A native Montrealer, I have lived in Sooke for 20 years. During this time I have watched the community grow and have observed its characteristics change alongside this growth. In my time as a resident here, and as LOC, I have observed a distinct need for literacy support, as well as digital literacy and media literacy for parents of young children in Sooke. For example, Sooke region youth do not transition into post-secondary at the same rate as the rest of the province (Assessing Post-Secondary Education Needs in the West Shore, 2019). With long commutes to the city for their jobs, many Sooke parents have told me they find it hard to make time to read to their children, and really appreciate the author visits I organize at the library because they find their kids are getting addicted to screens, one of the consequences of which is that encouraging reading as an activity becomes more difficult. Parents have also relayed to me their alarm at how “addicted” their kids are to their tablets and screen time for amusement in the evenings, which suggests to me the need for teaching media and digital literacy awareness and good consumption habits.
In recent years Sooke’s small community characteristics, relatively affordable housing market, and proximity to Victoria have made it an attractive option for young families. This population surge of families seeking a quieter life and more affordable housing has occurred alongside Sooke’s ongoing shift from a resource-based community, with commuters, retirees and young families becoming the predominant demographic. It is fair to say this is a community undergoing rapid development and transition from rural area to outlying suburb, and this has created tensions.
In the last century, the mill was the primary employer in Sooke. It shut sometime between 1983-1986. Today, Sooke has several small and medium-sized employers. Much of Sooke’s logging sector workforce moved away after the mill closure, or moved into the trades, so forestry layoffs (perhaps not including logging truck drivers) have not really impacted our region. The largest local employer today is likely School District #62, followed by various health services and medical services providers, and the service sector. The service sector includes local grocery stores, hardware stores, gas stations, hospitality and restaurants, all of which hire mostly minimum wage/subsistence level renumeration positions. The Municipal District office, which at present employs close to 50 employees, ranging from administration, finance, wastewater plant operators, and park maintenance offers a living wage to its employees, and is a desired employer. Seaparc, the local recreation and leisure complex, also offers a living wage to its employees.
According to Statistics Canada, the West Shore, including the Sooke region, is one of the fastest growing regions in Canada. The area has experienced a population increase of 49% between 2001 and 2016, with the District of Sooke experiencing population growth of 13.7% in that same period. Additional growth of 27% is projected for the next decade (Assessing Post-Secondary Education Needs in the West Shore, 2019, p. 9). One consequence of this rapid development in the region is a serious traffic problem. There is a project underway to enhance sections of the one highway which is the only access to Langford and Victoria.
Indeed, within Sooke in pre-Covid 2020, as per Sooke city councillor Jeff Bateman, 71% of Sooke residents commuted to Victoria for work. There is a single bus route along the one highway which services Langford/Colwood with connections to Victoria. The daily commute to Victoria takes 60-90 minutes during rush hour. However, when accidents occur that single highway can be shut for hours. In my meetings with survey participants, concerns about travel on our sole highway were mentioned several times: “It’s too stressful working in Victoria, because you have no control over whether you can actually make it in to work on any given day. If there’s an accident the highway it could just be shut for hours and you’re not going anywhere, and then your employer says I knew I shouldn’t have hired a Sooke person,” said Leree Docherty. Public engagement on the upcoming roadwork project showed people who self-identified as commuters were the majority of responders, and their primary concerns about this and other projects were an increase in traffic and commuting times (see Appendix).
The winding, two-lane highway that services Sooke was built in 1953. It was not built to service the volume of commuters it experiences today. In addition, further west of Sooke, forestry extraction and logging industries continue, with raw logs travelling through Sooke to further processing or shipment sites, meaning the highway is also heavily used by logging trucks. Tragically, every year there are logging truck accidents on this highway, trucks topple over and spill their load, resulting in injury and highway closure that creates traffic standstills on the highway for many kilometres. These events strand people away from home, strand children on school buses, and effectively cut off Sooke from the rest the Island (see Appendix).
The population growth the community has experienced without adequate infrastructure investment is making commuting from Sooke increasingly onerous as well as dangerous. This is a serious issue. In February, I interviewed Mayor Tait, the District of Sooke mayor, and she relayed to me her take on the issue: “There is not enough local employment in the region” (Richer, 2020).
The needs of women seeking employment training
In my work as LOC I have come to know that it is common in Sooke to have a family member who “works away.” As oil and gas, as well as forestry, faces downturns, the entire household in many homes is now falling on the shoulders of the women who stay home while their partner works away. Many of these women work the subsistence wage level positions in the local grocery stores, retail shops and restaurants. It is my belief that an important aspect of best program design and meeting the needs of Displaced Workers in Sooke would be to conduct some focused research on the needs of local women in our area in particular, who are underemployed at present and struggling. Questions to ask include will women reach out for help more, or less? As the commute to Victoria becomes increasingly untenable, what promising fields and occupations that women are more drawn to actually exist in Langford and the West Shore? Focusing skills development on employment outcomes in Langford and the West Shore will be important in creating successful innovation that gets people sustainable employment.
The characteristics of Sooke are such that we see many women still fulfilling most of the family and childcare duties while also finding themselves needing to work to sustain the family overhead. In these circumstances, particularly now that we are in pandemic for the foreseeable future, providing training for women so they may obtain telework positions and work from home at living wage level remuneration is a second strategy which I believe holds potential to improve the quality of life for entire families in an impactful way.
The disenfranchised older worker
The second target demographic I would pinpoint in Sooke is the older worker needing a career change. In my meetings at Worklink for this project, several staff have relayed to me a pattern of older workers from the trades, sometimes women in healthcare and other physically demanding occupations coming in for employment services. Jane Wakefield, an Employment Advisor at Worklink, relayed to me that she sees a lot of older workers coming in who can no longer meet the physical demands of their occupation and need help retraining to find less physically demanding employment. She noted that she has observed a correlation between these older workers needing to transition into a new occupation and low literacy digital skills, but not low literacy.
Six out of seven survey respondents to the Displaced Workers survey were over 50 years old, and four cited either an inability to continue to meet the physical demands of the work they were doing, or being the victim of ageism as a reason for loss of employment. It is my belief that this represents a phenomenon within workforce displacement in our region, and retraining which supports older workers moving into less physically demanding occupations will be useful and in demand. For example, one survey respondent was a nurse and could no longer work on her feet, so wanted to retrain to become a 911 dispatch operator. Another man, in his sixties, had sustained a concussion and was working with post-concussion syndrome but could not find work that was accepting of people who have this disability. One woman over 60 with 20+ years of retail experience experienced job loss due to ageism/new ownership, and was finding it very impossible to secure a new retail position within Sooke. None of the survey respondents seemed confident of their computer and software skills, yet broadly speaking they possessed significant people skills and still held much value to the marketplace.
The importance of workplace cultural awareness and evolving workplace norms
Another element to consider in program design for displaced workers in Sooke is addressing culture and class issues. With regard to a demographic of older workers seeking job change in particular, it was suggested to me by Mayor Tait and others that etiquette and developing an awareness of changed social norms would be a wise aspect to include in the trainings (Richer, 2020). In Sooke, many may still be ascribing to outdated cultural values and be holding views about heteronormativity, or possess racial and gender biases which will present a barrier to successful re-employment. Including a section in trainings on evolving workplace norms, today’s appropriate conduct and language is a recommendation for successful program design in Sooke.
Meaningful moments I have experienced
In conducting the conversations to set up our Focus Study for the project, I interviewed Ron Nietsch of 2Reel Fishing Adventures, one of the most longstanding local fishing charter businesses in Sooke. I believe Ron’s story can help clarify an important piece of the picture of the tourism economy and profile of the needs of disenfranchised older workers in Sooke.
Ron and his wife purchased a fishing charter business in Sooke in 1998, and grew it to the point where they decided to take the risk to see if the business could support them. They were motivated by the chance to live and work in their community. In 2006 Ron left his job as a prison guard at the Wilkinson prison, they purchased the local fishing and tackle shop, Eagle Eye Outfitters for 150K and a second fishing boat. Based on the numbers, they decided to jump in and pursue charter fishing full time.
They ran 2Reel with two boats from 2007-2020, providing full-time employment for one person running the second boat, with Ron’s wife staffing Eagle Eye Outfitters and doing the bookkeeping for both businesses. When I met with Ron he stoically described watching his successful business slowly begin to unravel when the fishing restrictions came into place. In the beginning, he told me, the restrictions were in place March to May, which was easy enough to work around. The next year, however, it was March-June. After that the restrictions were lengthened further and by 2015 started going into July. In 2019, he told me, for the second time in 22 years, the Chinook sport fishery was closed from April 18th to August 1st.
As these restrictions increased, Ron and his wife saw sales in their tackle shop decline. They were losing money running the shop. The charter business was able to float the losses in the tackle shop, but then as restrictions lengthened, the charter business began losing money as well. Ron described how he and his wife incurred debt as they held on, hoping the restrictions would lessen. He described trying to sell Eagle Eye Outfitters, a tackle shop now located in an area with a near-ban on sport fishing. They finally closed Eagle Eye Outfitters in May 2019 and moved their inventory into a shipping container on their property.
Ron’s wife got her Class 1 driver’s license and has since been hired by School District #62 as a school bus driver, and Ron himself was working a temporary position as a day labourer on a development construction site when I met with him in July to conduct the survey. While he has applied for a custodial position with School District #62, when I asked him about a dream job he discussed promoting recreational fishing tourism to the area, or working for the hatchery in a management capacity, and when asked what he needed to find this work, he expressed a need for more small business management training and digital and online marketing skills.
Ron was quick to point out that the impact has not just been on his family, but has rippled out to all local businesses that are based on recreational fishing. Local marinas and trailer parks, for example, used to fill up in May, he reported. Now most anglers only put their boats in in August, which represents a huge loss for local marina owners and operators as well. This effect has also been a huge blow to vacation rental businesses, Airbnbs and bed and breakfasts. At present, Ron is trying to pay back debt, and at time of writing had not yet found permanent employment.
Ron believes that federal support to increase the capacity of the local hatchery and the volume of fish it can release could positively support the local economy in our community as well as support the natural environment. Essentially, in his experience, recreational fishing is the heart of the economy in Sooke today, and many other industries turn on it. The recreational fishing industry in Sooke may have thrived because of our Hatchery, so increasing its capacity is a reasonable method and attainable strategy for fisheries recovery in our area.
It struck me that a local with intimate knowledge of our local fishery and many ideas based on experience for promoting and increasing local fish stocks is looking for work now as a janitor and has lost his business. Providing training and support for persons such as Ron to facilitate moving into work that remains within their area of their expertise could re-equip our community with its tourism engine.
To summarize, it is important to consider the effect of a history of geographical isolation, insufficient infrastructure, the needs of women and the needs of older disenfranchised workers when designing a program to serve the needs of the displaced workforce in Sooke. Furthermore, Sooke is a community with a deeply-rooted sense of place. For program design that is truly sustainable, it needs to occur in Sooke, and it is my recommendation that implementing Asset-Based Community Development will support a successful program implementation that capitalizes on the strong social networks that exist in Sooke. I cannot emphasize enough that program delivery as well must occur within Sooke or attendance will suffer. Focusing on unique community assets instead of weaknesses, gaps and flaws will ground program delivery for success; initiatives developed within the community will be embraced much more quickly than those brought in from outside sources. If the project can compile a team with local understanding, connections and expertise with an intent to develop targeted digital and skill sets this program holds much potential to assist our community with its demonstrable need for employment supports.
Assessing Post-Secondary Education Needs in the West Shore. (2019).
Richer, S. (2020). Interview with Maja Tait.
Statistics Canada Census. (2016).