July 7, 2023
IT WAS ONE OF HIS FAVOURITE THINGS to do as a kid.
While most everyone else in the house was sleeping, 12-year-old Cletus Daniels would get up at the crack of dawn, throw on some clothes and grab some breakfast for the big day ahead.
He was going to work with his dad.
Daniels and his father Bubba Qwulshemut, a Red Seal plumber and gas company technician, would drive around all day together in the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island responding to service calls.
These were big moments for Daniels. It’s when he first began learning the trades. When he envisioned a future career for himself. But the best part of all? Being together with his old man.
“Before I knew it, I was pushing him aside to take over the job,” said Daniels, now a fourth-year plumbing apprentice.
“Literally pushing me out of the way,” his dad added with a smile.
Now, 30 years later, father and son are together on the worksite again, side by side on one of the highest-profile projects in British Columbia today.
Qwulshemut and Daniels were the first two plumbers on site at the Cowichan District Hospital replacement project. The $1.4-billion, 607,000-square-foot facility is more than three times the size of the existing hospital and will increase bed capacity from 148 to 204. It is the first capital health project being built under the province’s Community Benefits Agreement (CBA).
The father and son travel across the worksite with great confidence and pride. They stop to snap a quick photo of the high-quality work being done. They’re currently working on installing trailers in what they call “trailer town” and hope to move on to the construction of the main buildings once that
Qwulshemut and Daniels are easygoing and highly personable, too. It can be tough for Qwulshemut, in particular, to get across the site in a hurry because everyone wants a few moments to chat with him. To bask in his positive energy and quiet calm.
When father and son pause for a few minutes to speak with Tradetalk magazine, it’s obvious that the roles of master and apprentice come naturally to them. Qwulshemut speaks clearly and calmly as Daniels listens intently. Bubba says Cletus is like a sponge.
In conversation, it’s clear this project, though massive in scope and impressive in innovation, is something much more to them.
“I really enjoy our time because I learn so much from my father,” said Daniels. “He’s done more than any father would. He’s gone over and above to teach me how to be in the right way and to be able to work [with him] on a job site of this calibre … it’s been an honour to be working beside him.”
Qwulshemut, 61, has had a full career. Before his Red Seal, he worked on farms. After his certification, his work has included long stints on a copper and gold mine in northern B.C. and with the local gas company. Working with his son has reignited his passion for the plumbing trade.
“I started to really back off on work in the last few years,” said Qwulshemut. “But I’m really hungry again to do this because of the calibre of work and the fact that I’m watching him and coming here every day. There’s not much I can teach him anymore. The groundwork that we’re going to be doing down the road is not something he’s done extensively and I always took pride in my ability to do groundwork because it’s precision work off of a blueprint. That kind of work is where he’s going to gain.”
The hospital replacement project is taking place on the lands of the Cowichan Tribes, of which Qwulshemut and Daniels are members. Their commitment to their culture is apparent.
Qwulshemut is a last name Bubba reclaimed as part of his Indigenous identity. Both take part in longhouse ceremonies on weekends through the fall and winter. Qwulshemut acts as a cultural liaison on the worksite where he conducted a smudging ceremony to cleanse the workers and the lands and connect them to the Creator.
“You have to balance the two,” said Qwulshemut. “Strong in our culture and being able to be out in the world, working and providing for your family. And my kids all do that. They’re all strong in the culture.”
Qwulshemut would like to see more Indigenous folks, and youth in particular, become involved with the skilled trades.
“It’s great to see an Indigenous representation here,” he said. “I really hope to see more of that on this jobsite and more of that with our peoples. If we can have an influence on some people in a good way, that would be amazing.”
Because they’re now working on a CBA project, Qwulshemut and Daniels are newly minted members of the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry Local 324 (UA Local 324).
Though they’ve never been members of a union before, their experience with UA 324 has been positive. Both particularly appreciate the attentiveness of their site rep and access to high-quality safety training and materials.
“There are a lot of perks that come with being in the union,” said Qwulshemut.
His son was quick to agree.
“I realize more so now that it’s a great benefit to be a part of that union,” he said.
And that respect for the union runs both ways. UA 324 representative Kevin Pivarnyik raves about the contributions Qwulshemut and Daniels have brought to the job.
“Bubba and Cletus are highly skilled, hard working and great guys,” he said. “They’ve got a special way with people. Everywhere they go on site, they’re chatting with folks they meet and spreading good vibes.”
Along with those good vibes, the father-son duo is also disseminating a high quality of work. Not only do they bear a striking physical resemblance, their workmanship carries a similar signature style.
“That signature is strong with both of us,” said Qwulshemut. “If we do it, it’s identical work. And we’re very precise on ‘Hey, it has to look good.’”
Qwulshemut says the two follow a philosophy of attention to detail and excellence, every single day.
“If you do it by the book, there’s no going wrong. It’s just a habit you get into,” said Qwulshemut. “Do it right and do it well. And Cletus has adopted that to a tee. He does better soldering than I do. It’s nice clean work. Always gets compliments on it. I’m just amazed at his progress.”
The massive project will leave a legacy in the community for decades to come. And that fact is not lost on Qwulshemut.
“I’m really proud and honoured to be a part of it,” he said. “My daughter was kind of shedding some light on it. She said ‘You know my kids and my grandkids are going to be talking about this and I’ll be letting them know that their papa and their uncle … were the ones that had a part in building
this hospital.’ So I thought ‘Yeah, that is pretty cool.’”
For Daniels, not only are he and his dad laying the groundwork for an important piece of infrastructure, they’re also continuing to build a family foundation that will resonate through generations.
“I like the chance to be part of a big project and meet so many varieties of people,” he said. “To be the first two plumbers on site, it’s an honour. I’m proud to say that I’m a part of that. And to be here with my father, all combined, it makes it that much more meaningful.”
“It’s history in the making,” Qwulshemut added. “And it’s eight minutes from home. You can’t beat that.”
By Jeremy Allingham