By Chadd Cawson Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

An untouched piece of Indigenous land called Halibut Island, also known as SISCENEM, near Salt Spring Island, will be the first piece of land given back to an Indigenous community through a land trust. The nearly 436,000 square foot island has been stewarded by the Saanich, or WSANEC, Peoples for thousands of years.

Tara Martin, a professor in the department of forest and conservation at the University of British Columbia, referred to this island as a true gem in the Salish Sea, and recalls being in awe with it as a little girl when taking rowboat trips with her mother from Salt Spring Island, where they resided.

“In the springtime, I could see from the banks of the island that they were covered in wildflowers,” Martin told Rosanna Deerchild, host of ‘Unreserved’, a CBC Radio podcast for Indigenous voices.

“Having grown up on Salt Spring Island, a much larger island just around 20 kilometres (km) north of the SISCENEM; there were no flowers like that. I wondered what it was about that island that made it such a bounty.”

As a girl, Martin noticed the difference between SISCENEM, lush with pink incredible sea blush, lomatium, chocolate, and fawn lilies, in comparison to the more developed islands in the area. Martin said she came to realize the greatest threat to ecosystems in the Salish Sea had been the removal of the ancient stewardship of these places. Two years ago, when the island was put up for sale, Martin contacted the listing agent and received permission to do an ecological survey on the island, as she believed that SISCENEM had to be returned to its original inhabitants, the WSANEC Peoples.

 “I knew immediately that this was an incredible island that had to be protected,” said Martin.

The process to return it to the WSANEC Peoples will be anything but simple since no system currently exists to transfer land back to Indigenous communities. Non-Indigenous Toronto-based lawyer, Lorraine Land, who specializes in Indigenous rights and environmental law, fields questions about how to return land back to local Indigenous Peoples. Land said most challenges stem from long-standing beliefs enshrined in the Doctrine of Discovery. It is the premise that the European settlers and colonizers believed Indigenous communities had no legal right or ability to own the lands that they lived on and stewarded, and instead, the right to take up those lands belonged to the Crown or state. 

The Doctrine of Discovery was followed by the Indian Act, which left First Nations with reserve lands that they did not own, because they are owned by the Crown. First Nations are not able to simply be gifted the land back. Martin, the WSANEC leadership council and the Land Conservancy of BC (a charitable trust with the goal of protecting biodiversity in B.C.) found a way around this to return SISCENEM to its original stewards. It began with environmentalist and philanthropist couple, David and Linda Cornfield, donating approximately $1.5 million to the Land Conservancy to purchase SISCENEM. During this time the WSANEC leadership council created its own land trust to hold the land title.

Land said the WSANEC leadership council setting up a trust is one of three options to give land back to First Nation communities. A more difficult and bureaucratic approach that could take decades, would be having the land added to a First Nations reserve, while a much easier way would be for a First Nation to set up a corporation to hold title to the lands being returned. 

“A corporation is recognized in Canadian law as a legal person able to hold lands, but a First Nation isn’t,” said Land.

Many have only seen SISCENEM by boat, including community engagement co-ordinator of the WSANEC leadership council, Eric Perky.

“What I’m really looking forward to is actually standing in a place that hasn’t been changed essentially in 150 years, and to appreciate the wild that is there,” said Pelky.

There will be much to learn from this island,  where WSANEC elders used to harvest medicines. In the Columbia Valley, the importance of not only acknowledging Indigenous lands but learning from them is a message well-delivered. Jenna Jasek, who piloted Every Child Matters: 4 Seasons of Reconciliation, in partnership with Reconciliation Education and First Nations University, expresses this throughout this initiative.

“Learning off the land is so important; I believe it is our greatest teacher,” said Jasek. “It’s so important that we learn where we are from and our surroundings because the eco-systems are here for a reason. They take care of the land so that we can live here in a good way.”

Pelky said a tribal school is clamouring to bring students to SISCENEM to learn about the plants and see what restoration could look like on other islands in the area. WSANEC Peoples consider the islands in the Salish Sea their ancestors.

“We can utilize that land for ceremony,” said Pelky. “Even the blessing of going out there and just being there for the day is something that can enrich a lot of our people.”