Small island off B.C. coast returned to local First Nation

·3 min read
SISȻENEM, also known as Halibut Island, is a 9.67-acre island off the east coast of Sidney Island near Victoria.  (Land Conservancy of B.C. - image credit)
SISȻENEM, also known as Halibut Island, is a 9.67-acre island off the east coast of Sidney Island near Victoria. (Land Conservancy of B.C. - image credit)

The Land Conservancy of British Columbia and the W̱SÁNEĆ leadership council have partnered to transfer a small parcel of land near Vancouver Island back to its original inhabitants.

SISȻENEM, also known as Halibut Island, is a 9.67-acre island off the east coast of Sidney Island. The Land Conservancy of B.C. recently purchased it for $1.55 million with the help of a donor.

Chief Don Tom, Tsartlip First Nation and chair of the W̱SÁNEĆ leadership council, says reconciliation is everyone's responsibility and the return of SISȻENEM to the W̱SÁNEĆ is an important step in that direction.

"It shows that reconciliation doesn't have to wait for government's lead and that we can all do our part to protect the environment and help heal the W̱SÁNEĆ people," Tom said in a written statement.

SENĆOŦEN, the language of the W̱SÁNEĆ First Nations on Vancouver Island's Saanich Peninsula, is written in a mainly upper-case alphabet.

'Ecological and cultural jewel'

The Land Conservancy of B.C. says the land transfer is the first of its kind between a land trust and an Indigenous community in Canada.

The organization and the W̱SÁNEĆ leadership council say they will work together to develop a land management plan based on Indigenous principles including cultural, educational and research purposes.

This Garry Oak maritime meadow on Halibut Island is one of a few remaining Garry Oak ecosystems left on the South Coast of B.C.
This Garry Oak maritime meadow on Halibut Island is one of a few remaining Garry Oak ecosystems left on the South Coast of B.C.(Tara Martin)

Tara Martin, a professor with the University of British Columbia's Faculty of Forestry, brought the island to the attention of the Land Conservancy. Martin says there aren't many like it left in the Salish Sea.

"This island is an ecological and cultural jewel," Martin said. "Most of our islands have been developed."

SISȻENEM or Halibut Island, noted with a red marker, is a small island situated near Sidney Island off Vancouver Island.
SISȻENEM or Halibut Island, noted with a red marker, is a small island situated near Sidney Island off Vancouver Island. (Google Maps)

Native fauna and flora

Only a few islands still have their original wildlife and floral, Martin says, and SISȻENEM is one of them.

Martin, who grew up in the area, says she must have gone past the island in a boat hundreds of times. One day she got to meet its owner, a recluse who had lived there for nearly 50 years.

UBC forestry professor Tara Martin contacted the Land Conservancy of B.C. when she found out that Halibut Island was for sale.
UBC forestry professor Tara Martin contacted the Land Conservancy of B.C. when she found out that Halibut Island was for sale. (Alex Harris)

Martin says when she found out the owner had passed away and the island was for sale, she applied to conduct a full ecological survey.

She found the island contains plants that used to cover the larger Gulf Islands hundreds of years ago.

'Into into the past'

She says the island is one of the few remaining Garry Oak ecosystems on the South Coast.

"It's a complete window into the past," she said.

The W̱SÁNEĆ used to harvest camas plants like these from land in the Gulf Islands region.
The W̱SÁNEĆ used to harvest camas plants like these from land in the Gulf Islands region.(Tara Martin)

Some of these plants on the island include camas, which the W̱SÁNEĆ used to harvest, as well as traditional medicines. The W̱SÁNEĆ also used the island to fish for cod.

W̱SÁNEĆ elder SELISLIYE (Belinda Claxton) said in a written statement that she remembered going from island to island when she was a child.

"It was so natural and so pleasant to be able to see that when I was a child," Claxton said. "This is the sort of experience I want my children and my grandchildren to have."