Island transferred to W̱SÁNEĆ in act of reconciliation

A Sidney-area island with important cultural links to the W̱SÁNEĆ people has been transferred to their leadership council in an act of reconciliation.

The Land Conservancy of B.C. announced a partnership agreement with the council on Friday for the four-hectare island, located just east of Sidney Island.

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Commonly referred to as Halibut Island, the site is known to the W̱SÁNEĆ as SISȻENEM (pronounced “cease kee num”), and was a place to fish for cod and collect camas. In breaking SISȻENEM down, “SISḴ” means “enjoying the sun,” “ȻEN” is a feeling of inner peace and “EM” refers to a place where such things happen. So SISȻENEM roughly means means “sitting out for pleasure of the weather.”

TLC recently bought the site for $1.55 million, raising the purchase price with support from a major donor.

“We believe this is an historic event, the first time a Canadian land trust has transferred title of a conservation property to a First Nation as an act of reconciliation,” said TLC executive director Cathy Armstrong.

W̱SÁNEĆ elder SELILIYE, who also goes by Belinda Claxton, offered her perspective on local islands such as SISȻENEM, saying they are important to her people’s future.

“I remember, we’d go from island to island,” she said. “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].”

The smell of wildflowers on the islands is another special recollection, she said. “Sometimes I get a whiff of it when I go out in the spring. It brings back such beautiful memories.”

Claxton said she wants her children and grandchildren to have similar experiences.

“There are not many places like this left,” she said.

Tsartlip First Nation Chief Don Tom, who is chairman of the W̱SÁNEĆ Leadership Council, said the W̱SÁNEĆ people (including the Tsartlip, Tseycum and Tsawout First Nations) have rights under the Douglas Treaties as well as Aboriginal titles and rights “and settlers have obligations to protect and honour those rights.”

“This means that reconciliation is everyone’s responsibility.”

The return of SISȻENEM “is a meaningful step in that direction,” Tom said. “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.”

Tom said that pursuing land or title has been a battle at times in the past, including court action, but the agreement with TLC is different.

“The land conservancy did much of the leg work,” he said. “For us to have someone else really do a lot of the work to get this back in our hands is something new to me.

“I’m excited by it.”

Tom described SISȻENEM as a pristine setting.

“It’s like going back in time.”

Armstrong said the man who lived on the island and owned it for over 50 years “lived very lightly” with a trailer, a composting toilet and a solar panel.

“He hadn’t put any concrete down or poured any foundations, he didn’t alter anything for agriculture, so the the island really is left in its natural state and that’s really the treasure of it,” she said.

The donor who helped buy the island was brought to TLC’s attention by Tara Martin, head of the University of B.C.’s faculty of forestry’s Conservation Decisions Lab. She called the island “an ecological and cultural jewel.”

“There are only a handful of islands like this left in the Salish Sea,” she said. “When it came up for sale I knew I had to find a way to get it back into the hands of its traditional owners to ensure its stewardship and protection for generations to come.”

Armstrong said TLC will work with the W̱SÁNEĆ and Martin to create “an eco-cultural restoration plan.”

“TLC is humbly grateful for the opportunity to facilitate this groundbreaking transfer of title for the benefit of future generations.”

TLC will be raising funds in the spring for ongoing restoration and monitoring work on SISȻENEM. Go to or 1-877-485-2422 for more details.

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