Conayt leases old CMS building from SD 58
The Conayt Friendship Society is taking over Coquihalla Middle School and is slated to run programs for Merritt and its surrounding communities from the 40,000-square-foot building.
The organization is leasing the school, which has sat vacant since it closed on June 30, from Nicola-Similkameen School District 58.
SD 58 Supt. Bob Peacock said the school district and Conayt worked on the deal for a year and half leading up to Thursday morning’s signing at the school. He said renting the building to Conayt was a natural choice.
“This is our third partnership with Conayt, and the partnerships that we’ve had with them have always been positive,” he said. “We have experience with their vision and where they want to go with it, so it seems like a healthy connection.”
He said one part of the vision the two organizations share is an apprenticeship program for students interested in trades.
“To do upgrading and start apprenticeship programs is one of the things they want to put into the building,” Peacock said. “We’ve talked to [Conayt] about our need for trades programs with our students at MSS, and whether or not we can have seats so that our kids could benefit from what they’re doing, and they said absolutely,” he said.
Peacock said filling the vacant building will have a positive impact on its surrounding neighbourhoods.
“The biggest cost wasn’t for the building or its heating, it was for the community,” he said. “Having a building sit empty, a building as large as this, isn’t a positive reflection on the community.
“With it being occupied now, we’re hoping that [vandalism] won’t become an issue.”
Conayt Friendship Society Executive Director George Girouard was tight-lipped about future programming but said Conayt will announce its plans for the building in the next three months.
“Without spilling the beans, half of the focus is going to be on community development activities, and the other half is going to be on a national scope project,” he said of the initiatives he expects to “turn the future direction of Aboriginal people in the Interior on its axis.”
Girouard cited Conayt’s expected growth from 37 employees to as many as 200 as an indication of the plan’s size and impact.
“It’s not just all about Conayt, it’s about working with the community to make sure that the community has opportunities for advancement and development,” he said. “We’re happy to be taking that lead on this because there’s so much that can happen, we just need to make it happen. That’s what we’re all about: the people in this valley.”
Representatives of SD 58 and Conayt, including School Board Chairman Gordon Comeau, spoke to an audience before the signing.
“I think you’ll be administering one of the largest friendship centres in North America,” Comeau said to Girouard during his speech — a statement that drew applause from the audience.
The document was inked by Girouard, Comeau, SD 58 Secretary-Treasurer Kevin Black, and Lower Nicola Band Chief Victor York, who is also the president of Conayt’s board of directors.
About 30 people attended the event, which opened and closed with prayers and hand drumming.