Reconciliation Action

SISȻENEM (Halibut Island) returned to W̱SÁNEĆ people

Press release from W̱SÁNEĆ Leadership Council & The Land Conservancy of BC

SISȻENEM Halibut Island, BC | Image ©Tara Martin

The Land Conservancy of British Columbia (TLC) and the W̱SÁNEĆ Leadership Council are pleased to announce a landmark partnership agreement that will transfer title of SISȻENEM, a 9.67-acre island off the east coast of Sidney Island, BC, from the charitable land trust to the W̱SÁNEĆ Leadership Council as an act of reconciliation.

Also known as Halibut Island, the island was recently purchased by TLC for $1.55 million. The transfer will be historically significant as the first of its kind between a land trust and an Indigenous community in Canada. TLC will work together with the W̱SÁNEĆ Leadership Council to draft and register a conservation covenant and develop a co-management plan. The plan will incorporate Indigenous land management principles that provide access for culture, education, research, and monitoring purposes.

SISȻENEM is an important cultural place for W̱SÁNEĆ people. Located immediately east of Sidney Island and many W̱SÁNEĆ villages, SISȻENEM was a place where W̱SÁNEĆ people would fish for cod, collect traditional medicines, and harvest camas. Most importantly for W̱SÁNEĆ people today, SISȻENEM will be a place where W̱SÁNEĆ people can be in peace.

Discussing SISȻENEM, W̱SÁNEĆ Elder SELILIYE (Belinda Claxton) reminisced about islands such as this and their importance for future generations: “I remember, we’d go from island to island. We went to harvest seagull eggs and boxwood and different types of medicine. Or, during minus tide we would get sea urchins and stick shoes (chitons)…. And, the fragrance of those wildflowers. Sometimes I get a whiff of it when I go out in the spring. It brings back such beautiful childhood memories. It was so natural and so pleasant to be able to see that when I was a child. This is the sort of experience I want my children and my grandchildren to have. I don’t want them seeing it in the picture. There are not many places like this left.”

Each syllable conveys a sense of what the place is to W̱SÁNEĆ people: SISḴ means “enjoying the sun,” ȻEN is a feeling of inner peace, and EM means a place where these things happen.

Part of the same geologic formation as Sidney Island (Turonian), SISȻENEM is comprised of bedrock carved by the last glaciation, basal conglomerate, and sandstone outcrops containing exposed fossils of bivalves and mollusks, including the beautiful ammonite fossils. This geologic formation on Sidney Island and along Island View Beach led to the discovery of mastodon and other prehistoric mammal fossils.

SISȻENEM supports Garry oak, arbutus, and Douglas fir woodlands, and open wildflower meadows. Garry oak associated ecosystems support many of Canada’s species at risk including the common nighthawk (Chordeiles minor) and popcorn flower (Plagiobothrys tenellus). In the spring, the meadows are carpeted with ḰȽO,EL (Great Camas, Camassia leichtlinii), Fawn lily (Erythronium Oregonum), and Chocolate lilies (Fritillaria affinis). Due to the lack of deer browse on SISȻENEM, researchers have identified an abundance of native species with cultural significance such as ḴEXMIN (Indian consumption plant, Lomatium nudicaule) and ḰȽO,EL (Great Camas, Camassia leichtlinii).

ḰȽO,EL (Great Camas, Camassia leichtlinii) | Image ©Tara Martin

The name SISȻENEM cannot be easily translated into English as a whole, but each syllable conveys a sense of what the place is to W̱SÁNEĆ people: SISḴ means “enjoying the sun,” ȻEN is a feeling of inner peace, and EM means a place where these things happen. Roughly SISȻENEM means sitting out for pleasure of the weather.

“Everyone living in W̱SÁNEĆ Territory is a subject to the Douglas Treaties,” says Chief Don Tom, Tsartlip First Nation and W̱SÁNEĆ Leadership Council Chairman. “W̱SÁNEĆ people have Douglas rights and Aboriginal rights and title, and settlers have obligations to protect and honour those rights. This means that reconciliation is everyone’s responsibility. The return of SISȻENEM to W̱SÁNEĆ people by The Land Conservancy – with the support of generous private donors and Dr. Tara Martin [of the University of British Columbia] – is a meaningful 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. The phrase “Land Back” is no longer a euphemism. It’s finally a reality,”

TLC will be raising funds this spring to support ongoing restoration and monitoring work on the island. For more information about SISȻENEM and how you can get involved, visit www.conservancy.bc.ca or call TLC at 1-877-485-2422.


Watershed Sentinel Cover April/May, 2021

This article appears in our April | May 2021 issue.


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