ȾIKEL Land Back Ceremony Marks Historic Moment

On August 18th, 2023 the W̱SÁNEĆ community held a ceremony to celebrate the return of a 47.5-acre parcel in the heart of ȾIKEL (Maber Flats) from the Berglund Family to W̱SÁNEĆ Lands Trust Society under the Ecological Gifts Program.

The ceremony held on August 18th, 2023 marked a historic moment: the first return of land to an Indigenous organization in Canada under the Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Ecological Gift Program.

The land returned is a 47.5-acre parcel in the heart of ȾIKEL (Maber Flats). The land was originally wetlands stewarded by W̱SÁNEĆ. According to Elder J,SIṈTEN (John Elliott), the swampy area was “a safe place” for certain spiritual beings of the land and the water, and the area now referred to as the “fairgrounds” was a camping area for those attending traditional gatherings.

The land also provided important resources for the community. Gord Elliott of the W̱SÁNEĆ Leadership Council explains  ȾIKEL “provided water resources for our people. Food gathering, medicine harvesting, and resources for ensuring we could build our reef nets.”

However, in the colonization process, settlers took the land, drained it, and began using it for farming.

The Berglund family acquired the land in 1989 and continued leasing it for farming until recently, when the Berglunds found the land was no longer suitable for farming. That’s when they initiated the transfer of ȾIKEL back to the W̱SÁNEĆ people.

The W̱SÁNEĆ people accepted the return of the land via the W̱SÁNEĆ Lands Trust Society (WLTS). The WLTS is a not-for-profit organization with charitable status, and an approved recipient under the Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Ecological Gift Program. Its purpose is to provide a place for land like ȾIKEL to be returned to the W̱SÁNEĆ people to “help future generations of W̱SÁNEĆ access land for cultural purposes and to positively impact the environment through W̱SÁNEĆ stewardship.” ȾIKEL is the second piece of land returned via WLTS, following the return of SISȻENEM (Halibut Island) in 2021.

Now that ȾIKEL has been returned, the W̱SÁNEĆ community intends “to restore this land to wetlands the best that we can to ensure its return to its natural state so that our people can once again begin to harvest here and exercise our traditions and way of life,” according to Elliott.

The W̱SÁNEĆ community gathered for a ceremony to celebrate the return of ȾIKEL on August 18th, 2023. During the ceremony, the Berglund family and several W̱SÁNEĆ elders and community members spoke, and W̱SÁNEĆ drummers, dancers and singers conducted appropriate cultural protocol. In front of each speaker stood a podium displaying a large copy of the Saanich Indian Territorial Declaration.

The ceremony included the presentation of gifts to the Berglund family, and a table of food for all to share.

Attendees at the ceremony celebrated the transfer of ȾIKEL as not only an important act of reconciliation, but also as an action that supports climate justice, economic growth, and food security. Joni Olsen of the W̱SÁNEĆ Leadership Council (WLC) team spoke to the impact for the land transfer, sharing, “For a lot of people this means food security and medicine security.” The type of restoration WLTS intends to engage in at ȾIKEL, Olsen continued, is “good for climate action also, and food security, and the health of the environment.” “First Nations people were historically really fantastic land stewards” and under W̱SÁNEĆ care, ȾIKEL “has potential to be a majorly diverse, beautiful piece of land.” Finally, according to Olsen, “There are really good outcomes in terms of economic inclusion and boosting the economy if land back means there is an opportunity to be in business.”

Elder John Elliott joined in celebration, “Today I’m really happy because (ȾIKEL) is returning back. There’s going to be a lot of work to do. It’s a great opportunity for the W̱SÁNEĆ  to work together to build a stronger connection back to this place. Along the way we can rebuild ourselves as well,” he added.

The WLC is hopeful that the return of ȾIKEL by the Berglund family will inspire other settlers to participate in reconciliation through monetary or land donations to the WLTS. Olsen reiterates the importance of gifts like these, stating W̱SÁNEĆ “land base has been decimated to almost nothing. There’s a lot of really great practices and land care and cultural teachings that need to be handed down that are very much land based, so land back, especially of places that have a lot of meaning like ȾIKEL, really means a lot.”

Adam Olsen, MLA for Saanich North and the Islands, is also hopeful. Olsen shares, “part of reconciliation is going to be to recognize that the laws that were created by this country and the laws that have been created by the province have excluded Indigenous people from their lands and I think we will be a better community and a stronger, more resilient community when we move past that ugly part of our history. This is one more of those steps and it is one that should be celebrated.”

Interested in supporting land back initiatives? The WLTS accepts both land and cash donations on an ongoing basis. For more information about the WLTS or how you can donate, visit www.supportlandback.com.

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