Remembering the battle for Saanichton Bay; celebrating the 35th anniversary of a groundbreaking victory.

Saanichton Bay, where the Tsawout village sits, was the site of a public battle between developers and W̱SÁNEĆ people over traditional fishing grounds. This case drew out over 15 years and culminated in a groundbreaking legal victory for Tsawout First Nation.

Shown above: 1985: Tsawout community members protest an attempt to dredge Saanichton Bay by climbing onto the bucket in a frigid snowstorm. 

In 1974, a proposal for the Saanichton Marina Development was put forward by Bob Wright and George Wheaton to establish a 1,256 berth marina, administrative building and parking lot right in Saanichton Bay, a traditional food source for W̱SÁNEĆ people since time immemorial. 

In a 4-2 vote, the marina was given conditional approval by Saanich Council, subject to restrictions intended to protect the ecology of the area. Two environmental studies had already been completed by this point and showed there would be little impact on the ecology of the bay.

Prior to the vote, Tsawout leadership had organized several protests and had obtained a significant number of signatures on a petition in an attempt to stop the development. However, the concerns about further encroachment on and desecration of traditional fishing grounds were ultimately dismissed by Saanich Council. 

In response, Chief Gus Underwood vowed to fight the development in court and insisted on an objective environmental study to be completed before development began. Within a few short weeks, the Federal Department of Indian Affairs registered their concerns, stating that the marina would violate the 1852 Douglas Treaty. In agreement with Tsawout leadership, the Resource Minister halted the development, insisting on further ecological studies that would consider the impacts on Tsawout and W̱SÁNEĆ people more generally.

By May of 1975, after a 6 month moratorium on development, the Province, represented by Resource Minister Bob Williams, rejected the development. After reviewing independent ecological studies, as well as presentations from W̱SÁNEĆ elders, the Minister shared “a large development right next door would be a serious disruption.” 

By this time, Tsawout’s protest had gained the support of international environmental groups and public frustrations with the disregard for W̱SÁNEĆ life were growing. The Tsawout Chief at the time warned the Province that W̱SÁNEĆ people would take the road to militancy should they fail to shut down the project. Instead, by June of that year, Tsawout was hosting a feast to celebrate the rejection of the project. Although, this wouldn’t be the end of the story. 

Unfortunately, their celebration was premature. The developer, not willing to let go of their marine leases and the $50,000 spent on the project, were not so easily deterred. Less than two weeks after the project was rejected by the Province, Saanich Council suggested that perhaps a smaller development could be negotiated between Tsawout leadership and the developer. Tsawout was not receptive to this proposal.

In 1980, the developer re-applied for a marine lease for a much reduced 400 berth marina. Saanichton Marina Ltd. owned a small piece of land adjacent to the Tsawout village and intended to dredge the bay to accommodate a breakwater and marine berths. Regardless of the proposed size of the marina, Tsawout leadership were unchanged in their opposition to the development that would destroy their fishing grounds.

In 1983, after George Wheaton died, his son Bob took over the campaign to develop Saanichton Bay. Despite nearly 10 years of protest by the people of Tsawout, Bob succeeded in getting their application approved. In June of that year, on behalf of the Province, the Regional Director of Lands, Parks and Housing Ministry, informed Saanichton Marina Ltd. that their application had been conditionally approved. By 1985, the municipality had issued a development permit for over 6.15 hectares of Saanichton Bay, including the 500 boat marina, a parking lot and buildings.

In response, Tsawout leadership said they would “do whatever it takes” to oppose the development, and they shared plans to take the case to the Supreme Court. The developers scoffed at Tsawout’s claim that the marina was in violation of the 1852 Douglas Treaty, saying the “Indians” interpretation was “wrong.” Gus Underwood replied “We are the ones that negotiated the treaty, we know what it says and the interpretation is clear to us.”

As the court battle began, and construction proceeded on the $2 million project, Tsawout members continued to protest the marina, most famously in a freezing snowstorm in November of 1985. While a barge was placed in Saanichton bay with the intent of drilling holes and dredging the bay, Tsawout members surrounded the barge in small boats. In comparison to the developer’s equipment, these boats were so smally they were nearly tipped over by the wake of the dredge bucket. 

Finally, Earl Claxton Jr. jumped from a boat and clung to the dredge bucket to prevent it from descending again into the bay. Earl Claxton Jr. hung to that bucket in the driving snow for over an hour in a last ditch effort to protect his ĆELÁṈEN (loosely translated as duty, birthright, livelihood), his relatives, and his way of life. In particular, the eelgrass beds (home to a critical clam bed fishery), as well as Sandhill Creek (the primary nursery stream for sea-run cut-throat trout), were in danger 

“It’s a damn sorry situation when a bunch of lawbreakers gets such positive media attention, that’s why we don’t want to deal with you,” Bob Wheaton, the developer, responded. 

At last, in October of 1987, in a legal battle that went on for over two years, a BC Supreme Court Judge ruled on Claxton v. Saanichton Bay Marina in favour of Tsawout and against the Provincial, Municipal and Federal authorities who approved the development.

Louis Claxton and Tsawout were awarded a permanent injunction in the BC Supreme Court against the construction of a marina in Saanichton Bay. Mr. Justice Meredith ruled that James Douglas, the Hudson Bay Company’s representative, “implemented a policy to protect the Indians in their right to pursue their traditional economy of hunting and fishing” and so concluded “that they had the right to resist…the proposed marina at Saanichton Bay as it would diminish in the extent the fishery contractually reserved to predecessors” of the original signatories to the Douglas Treaty.

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Times Colonist (Victoria, British Columbia, Canada) · Sat, Sep 28, 1974

Resources minister calls moratorium to work on Saanichton Bay Marina

Times Colonist (Victoria, British Columbia, Canada) · Sat, Sep 14, 1974

Saanich council gives conditional approval for Saanichton Marina; Tsawout vows to fight decision in court

Times Colonist (Victoria, British Columbia, Canada) · Fri, Sep 13, 1974

Tsawout Chief insists on new environmental studies that factor impacts to Tsawout be conducted to properly assess impact of proposed Saanichton Marina

Times Colonist (Victoria, British Columbia, Canada) · Tue, Sep 17, 1974

Central Saanich approves Saanichton Bay Marina. Tsawout concerned about effects on marine pollution

The Province (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada) · Mon, Sep 16, 1974 ·

Saanichton Marina gets go ahead; Tsawout concerned about polluted fishing waters

Times Colonist (Victoria, British Columbia, Canada) · Wed, Sep 18, 1974

Tswout halts development of Saanichton Bay Marina due to impediments on right to fish and hunt on unoocupied land

Times Colonist (Victoria, British Columbia, Canada) · Wed, Sep 11, 1974

Tsawout halts development of Saanichton Bay Marina, a less biased assessment of environmental impact urged.


Marina Rejection Celebration Feast Hosted By Tsawout

Times Colonist (Victoria, British Columbia, Canada) · Thu, May 8, 1975

Environmental groups support Tsawout leaders assertion Saanichton Bay marina will destroy water and harm fish, birds, etc. 

Times Colonist (Victoria, British Columbia, Canada) · Tue, May 13, 1975

Province rejects Saanichton Marina: elders knowledge of habitat impacts deemed impressive

Times Colonist (Victoria, British Columbia, Canada) · Thu, May 22, 1975

Saanich council debates opening up conversation about the marina; Tsawout leaders said they’ll receive a cool reception of that idea given previous protests etc

Times Colonist (Victoria, British Columbia, Canada) · Sat, May 10, 1975

Marina “used as tool” to stir up issues, has “nothing to do” with land claims

Times Colonist (Victoria, British Columbia, Canada) · Tue, Aug 26, 1980

Saanichton Bay marina would threaten treaty and fishing rights of Tsawout

Times Colonist (Victoria, British Columbia, Canada) · Fri, Jul 1, 1983 ·

Saanichton Bay Marina gets go ahead after 10 years of protest by Tsawout

Times Colonist _ Sat December 7 1985

Judge halts Saanichton Bay Marina based on Douglas Treaty

Thurs July 18 1985

Tsawout vows to fight Saanichton Marina in court.

Times Colonist (Victoria, British Columbia, Canada) · Tue, Jul 16, 1985

Tsawout protests Saanichton Marina development after municipal approval

Times Colonist (Victoria, British Columbia, Canada) · Thu, Jul 18, 1985

Tsawout will take Saanichton Marina dispute to court

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