By Sage Birchwater –
Something exciting is going on at the former Riske Creek Elementary School. Toosey Old School Wood Products is laying the foundation for a brighter future for local First Nations.
Riske Creek Elementary School on Stack Valley Road was constructed in 1976 and ran for 30 years before the school district shut it down in 2006. Toosey First Nation (also known as Tsilhqot’in People at Tl’esqox) kept it going for a year as a primary school but after that the building was boarded up and stood empty for seven years.
Then, in 2014, Toosey forest manager Craig Kennedy had an idea.
Why not renovate the old school, which was slated for demolition, and teach carpentry skills to Toosey band members at the same time? He approached the school district and they gave Toosey a 30-year lease on the building.
Kennedy submitted a funding proposal to Cariboo Chilcotin Aboriginal Training Employment Centre (CCATEC) and received enough training dollars for a six-month project. Six youth (ages 18 to 24) were partnered with lead carpenter Dennis Tulloch to learn renovating skills in carpentry, electrical, sanding, painting, roofing, plumbing, and more.
That was four years ago. Now the old school is a beehive of activity.
“Since 2014 we’ve been renovating and changing things inside the building as we come up with new and exciting ideas,” Kennedy says.
One of the first renos was transforming the library into a fully equipped carpentry shop. This became ground zero for the renovation project.
Other training programs followed: heavy equipment operating, first aid courses, wildfire suppression, and sawmill and log yard training.
Renovations continued with one classroom being converted into a mechanics shop. Dorm rooms were created in another part of the school to accommodate people taking classes.
For the past year an assisted living course for health care workers has been running at the old school. The program is funded by the Tsilhqot’in National Government health department and is being delivered by Nicola Valley Institute of Technology (NVIT).
In 2016, Kennedy purchased their first small sawmill, a Peterson Swing saw, and they started cutting lumber for their own needs.
“Our vision was to cut lumber from our own logs and build homes in our community,” he says.
They built two 500-square-foot, 16-by-20-foot cabins with lofts as prototypes for housing.
“We brought in Rod Krimmer and Mike Tudor to teach the dovetail cornering, and we cut all the timbers here,” Kennedy continues.“The two cabins on site are our show homes.”
Today they have four small sawmills—two band saws and two swing saws that can process 13,000 board feet of lumber per shift. They also have an edger, a resaw, a planer, and a kiln drier.
“We consume one truckload of logs each day,” says Kennedy.
The logs come from the 41,000-hectare Chilcotin Military Reserve just up Stack Valley Road from the old school. Toosey and Esket (Alkali Lake First Nation) formed a joint-venture to manage all forest related activities on the military reserve. They call their company Cariboo Aboriginal Forestry Enterprises or CAFE for short.
Kennedy is the general manager of Toosey Old School Wood Products and oversees 28 employees that include site manager Brian Fuller, quality control manager Darryl Finchham, and office manager Lady Tinor.
“We have four sawyers, four tailors (supporting the sawyers), two edger operators, a resaw operator, heavy equipment operators, lumber graders, a dryer operator, a planer operator, and two admin assistants,” he says. “We have a fully equipped carpentry shop with a journeyman carpenter and helper, and a full mechanic bay with a Red Seal journeyman mechanic (Phil Brown) and a helper.”
He says the core business at the moment is building bridge panels and selling lumber. They build four bridge panels a day and move the crew around, so the workers can run everything.
They recently purchased two firewood processors to supply the local communities with fuel. Last year they provided firewood to Toosey and Esket. Wood waste from the sawmilling operation is chipped and sold to Esket for their community heating system.
“We are a member of COFI (Council of Forest Industries) with five certified lumber graders,” Kennedy says. “Our business model is to build houses in First Nations communities, and we expect to be doing that in spring 2019.”
The plan is to bring in other First Nations communities and train them on sawmilling and construction as well as building homes and providing the business structure to do it.
“So, we’re open for business,” Kennedy says. “We have a 15-year forest licence and an agreement with Tolko to help us manage the forest.”
Kennedy says it’s all about working with good people you trust, networking, and integrity.
Toosey Chief Frances Laceese is optimistic. He says one of the biggest outcomes of the Old School operation is the self-reliance it cultures in members of his community.
“They like working with their hands,” he says. “They’ll be building houses and everything that’s inside. There’s lots of different skills they can learn and develop.”
Sage Birchwater moved to the Cariboo-Chilcotin in 1973. He spends his time freelancing, authoring books, and with Caterina, hanging out with their dog and cat, gardening, & being part of the rich cultural life of the Cariboo-Chilcotin Coast.