Early this year, Songhees Chief Ron Sam received a phone call from Colwood Mayor Carol Hamilton.
“I am going to send you some letters, and you are likely to be angry. After reading them, can you please call me back,” she said.
As requested, Sam read the scanned and emailed, handwritten letters and he was not happy.
The letters were from a group of 10- and 11-year-olds concerned about the land at Royal Roads the Department of National Defence announced it was looking to dispose of. As soon as First Nations, including Songhees Nation, had expressed interest in the property, the letters came.
Not one of the 22 letters specifically mentioned anything about First Nations or Songhees, but when Hamilton read the letters, she knew what the writers were implying; so did Sam.
“It was really an unfortunate incident, all the letters were saying ‘don’t cut down the trees,’ ‘they will kick out the animals’ and ‘they’ll destroy the forest for a shopping mall,’ ” Sam explained. “We need to think about how things are being told.”
Each letter asked the mayor to step in and not let this happen, even asking the City of Colwood to purchase the land to stop it.
“Usually, kids aren’t so politically pointed,” Hamilton explained to me. “It was stereotypical thinking, and we really need to move away from that. It’s just people jumping to conclusions.”
As a united front, the two leaders arranged to visit the classroom where the letters originated, to meet face-to-face to listen and engage to set the record straight.
“I saw this as a perfect opportunity for both of us to go,” said Hamilton. “I always say, if we are going to change things, we are going to change things through the children.”
The mayor and the chief entered the classroom, introduced themselves, and said they would stay until all of the questions were answered.
“At the beginning, I could tell they really didn’t know what to ask,” said Sam.
It’s easy to criticize people when they aren’t around, but when they are right in front of you, it’s different.
“The questions really started coming after they overcame their shyness. I reassured the kids we wouldn’t be cutting down all the trees and kicking out the animals,” said Sam.
For the children, this is where their nature club meets and their Terry Fox runs are held. For Songhees Nation, the land holds their history.
“There is a huge archeological significance; it’s where our people used to be before colonization,” Sam explained.
All of the letters were addressed to Colwood, not Songhees. Sam was impressed that Hamilton reached out to him and included him.
“This is new. Years ago, a mayor would have ignored the letters, or if they did go to the school, they wouldn’t have called and included us.”
The concerns over this situation shouldn’t have even been directed to Hamilton in the first place.
“The land is federal land, and the jurisdiction is from the federal government, not municipal,” said Hamilton.
“I let the students know that we don’t carry any weight on the decision, and they are not obligated to share their consultation process.”
I was first told this story a few months ago, not as a journalist, but just as a friend. I love this story. Having municipal and First Nations leaders work together is what needs to happen, and it is happening more often.
Hamilton and Sam did this because it was the right thing to do, and I hope they’ve taught these young students a valuable lesson.
“We told the kids that leaders teach, they don’t preach,” Hamilton said. “We want them to know they can reach out and we will answer and address their concerns.”
Before the pair left the classroom, a memorable moment for Sam was when a young boy said: “I think we took enough away from you, you should have it back.”
Songhees Nation has individual memorandums of understanding with both the City of Colwood and Royal Roads University, ensuring everyone would have a say.
“Our municipal relationships are important to us. If our efforts to obtain a modern-day treaty are successful, we will have treaty lands in six municipalities,” said Sam, explaining Songhees currently has land in Colwood, Langford, Victoria and Esquimalt.
Charla Huber works in communications and Indigenous relations for M’akola Group of Societies.