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W̱SÁNEĆ nation celebrates land transfer

Family that had farmed the land happy wetland is returning to the First Nation
The HELI , SET SWELOKE Drum Group performs a celebration song at the W̱SÁNEĆ Lands Trust Society TIKEL (Maber Flats) land return and blessing ceremony in Victoria, B.C. August 18, 2023. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

The WSÁNEĆ Nation plans to restore a former wetland near Stelly’s Secondary School to its original state after receiving a transfer of 18 hectares of land from a family.

The land, known as TIKEL (pronounced tsee-kull) or Maber Flats, has been owned by the Berglund family since 1989 and used for farming, most recently of barley until last fall. It’s now mostly overgrown with tall grasses.

The land was once cultivated by the WSÁNEĆ people to collect food and medicine. The pacific willow harvested at the site was used to make reef nets that allowed the community to fish at sea. Despite being drained for farming, the land is home to about 175 migratory bird species.

The transfer of the land is an example of “reconciliaction,” providing a place to harvest traditional plants and hold ceremonies again, said Don Tom, chair of the WSÁNEĆ Leadership Council and chief of the Tsartlip First Nation.

Having the WSÁNEĆ name attached to the parcel and being able to call it their own is something to celebrate, Tom said.

There is very little Crown land available for the nations to use in the area, so any opportunity to acquire land is meaningful, he said. “We’re thrilled at the opportunity for WSÁNEĆ to have lands to restore and to use for medicines.”

Tom said once the land is no longer drained every summer for farming, the ecosystem will likely return to the wetland it once was.

After owning the parcel for nearly 35 years and leasing to farmers, the Berglund family decided to donate the land.

Brian Berglund said his family realized the land was becoming less suitable for farming as it’s one of the lowest areas in Central Saanich and generally underwater during the winter, making it inaccessible to machines. The land doesn’t drain easily and seems to be trying to naturally return to wetland, he said.

After exhausting options for farming, they decided it was time to look for someone who could better steward the land.

Habitat Acquisition Trust, a regional land trust on Southern Vancouver Island, introduced the Berglund family to the WSÁNEĆ leadership and was instrumental in the land transfer.

After they were introduced and heard about the cultural significance of the spot to the WSÁNEĆ people, it was an easy choice to donate the land to the nation, Berglund said.

“I don’t think we could have found anybody that would have appreciated this property more,” Berglund said.

Tom is hopeful that the donation could be the first of many. Saanich farmers who are exploring what to do with their property and reach out to him after seeing the precedent set by the Berglund family, he said.

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