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At nearly 98 years old, machinist Don Roberts recently made a significant contribution to aspiring artists through the Construction Foundation, donating hundreds of carving blades he had created and accumulated over his career to schools and First Nations students throughout the province.

Over his long and varied working life, Don tried on many jobs. He discovered early in life that he preferred to work for himself and make his own choices. He pursued that dream and bought the Sooke Machine Shop on Vancouver Island in 1962.

Don and his business partner Dick owned the shop for seventeen years. Some of their proudest accomplishments were designing and building several large fishing vessels, ranging from 35 to 65 feet.  Not quite ready for full retirement once they sold the shop, Don used his machining talents to create knife blades for carving.

For several years he made and sold his blades to hobbyists and carvers, including people he met through a federal art program at William Head Institution and at local markets. Many of his repeat customers were talented First Nations carvers. He recalls working with Chief Tony Hunt and several other carvers who were involved with the works in Thunderbird Park, although he admits that specific names elude him. These talented artists, some from communities from up-island would sometimes drop by their home in Colwood to request specific blades and have a chat.

Making blades was an opportunity for Don to use his creativity, innovation and his machinist skills while also fueling his desire to stay connected and purposeful in his later years. He continued to sell his blades at flea markets in Victoria until his early 90s. By this time, he had built up a significant inventory of works. 

Don and his wife Marion were married for seventy-two years and had four daughters. Both knew the value of hard work and balanced it with fun and play. They square danced for 50 years, making lifelong friends. On several occasions they drove the fifth wheel RV that Don had built across Canada and the US to attend National Square Dance Conventions. Don recently sat down with his children to discuss how best to pass on his legacy and it was decided that they would work with the Foundation to distribute his knife blades to the next generation of artists.

His daughter Ardis spoke to the Foundation on his behalf, due to the restrictions of his care home amid COVID-19.

“I am one of four daughters and all of us see him as a marvelous role model,” Ardis said. “He is a man of principle who has always given back as much as he has taken. He knows the meaning of giving without recognition and he is very pleased to know that something that he spent years doing is going to a community who will value it and know what the blades are for and how to use them.”

Don’s work ethic and integrity has always been highly respected. He believes in the good of people and the need to provide opportunity where possible. Ardis noted that the contribution of Don’s legacy to young people where his tools can be used as intended was very gratifying for both him and his family.

“He truly is a self-made man who taught himself many skills and then continued to listen, learn, practice,” Ardis added. “He often had few resources and needed to innovate. His home was furnished with his own works and us daughters have his cherished wooden burl tables in our homes. Two of his canoes are hanging the in the “Flying Canoe” pub in the Best Western Hotel in Courtenay, BC.”

Don’s enthusiasm, desire to learn and work ethic will now be passed down to a new generation through his donation of carving blades—the tools are an essential component of every carver’s toolkit.

“The influence of such a generous gift will be massive for students,” stated Construction Foundation Catalyst, Indigenous Communities and artist Dean Heron. “To put a carving knife into the hands of young students is like giving the gift of knowledge. The impact will be seen for years to come.”

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