The future of the well-loved forests surrounding Royal Roads University is uncertain because the Department of National Defence no longer wants the land. Working out a plan that satisfies government, First Nations and local residents will take patience and respectful negotiation.
The Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations hope some of the land will be turned over to them, as they have identified it as a core part of their claimed traditional territories.
Songhees Chief Ron Sam said he believes there is enough land in the parcel to make up the federal contribution to a treaty settlement, which has been in negotiation for 24 years.
“We’re not after Royal Roads University, we’re looking at the lands surrounding the university,” Sam said. “My understanding is there’s about 500-plus acres of land at Royal Roads, and that’s really what the Songhees Nation is looking at.”
The block of land that wraps around Esquimalt Lagoon has seen many changes since the arrival of Europeans. Coal baron James Dunsmuir, who became premier and later lieutenant-governor of B.C., bought it in 1907 and built Hatley Castle.
In 1940, the castle was the centrepiece of a military training facility that became Royal Roads Military College. In 1995, the college closed down, to be replaced by Royal Roads University.
The university won’t disappear; it has 83 years remaining on a 99-year lease with DND.
DND public affairs officer Jessica Lamirande said: “Regardless of the end result, we are committed to supporting the continued operations of Royal Roads University in its current location. We are sensitive to the importance of Royal Roads University and the heritage buildings and will work to accommodate this in the future vision for this property.”
That still leaves a lot of questions about what will happen to the rest of the property, with its trails and towering trees.
“If we do acquire it, we’ll be sitting down to see what areas can be developed, what areas people have labelled as green space, what our dreams and aspirations are and working together to — I can’t say it enough — make it work for everyone,” Sam said.
Bulldozing the massive trees for a commercial or residential development is unlikely, he said.
Those comments are reassuring for people who love to walk the network of trails that seem a world away from the bustle of nearby Colwood.
Balancing the aspirations and expectations of various groups will not be easy. On the Saanich Peninsula, the University of Victoria has angered area residents with its plans to sell Dunsmuir Lodge to a health-care company and sell 75 of the 100 acres to the Pauquachin First Nation. The land is part of the Pauquachin traditional territory.
Residents say the university is violating a 30-year-old commitment to maintain public access to the popular trails on the land. The university’s president described the deal as a “win-win-win,” but residents say they and the District of North Saanich have had no meaningful input.
Similar fears led to protests at Royal Roads in 1995, when rumours erupted that the federal government planned to build 8,000 homes on the property. Three protesters barricaded themselves in a room in the castle and were removed with pepper spray.
No one wants to see a repeat of those events. Everyone who cares about this gem should have a chance to be heard, to find a solution that will, as Sam said, work for everyone.