Pauquachin looking to buy UVic land to protect culture

First Nation set to buy UVic property in North Saanich to preserve spiritual practices.

Dunsmuir Lodge in North Saanich is subject to a pending deal between the owners

First Nations communities on the Saanich Peninsula have been using LAU WELN EW Mountain for spiritual and cultural practices for hundreds of years.

Most people don’t know about it, says Chief Rebecca Harris of the Pauquachin First Nation near North Saanich, because their spiritual practices are not widely publicized. And as such, people not from within the WSANEC (Saanich) community might not understand why the Pauquachin wants to buy 75 acres of University of Victoria land that surrounds the Dunsmuir Lodge.

Harris said they are getting close to a deal with UVic.

The University is in the process of a deal to sell 25 acres of the 100-acres they own in North Saanich adjacent to Dean Park to Homewood Health. That company has plans to renovate the Lodge and turn it into an addictions treatment and wellness centre.

At the same time, UVic has given Pauquachin the first shot at buying the rest of the property. Harris said at one time, they had looked at buying all 100 acres, but the price tag was not within reach.

The deal with Ontario-based Homewood Health, she said, has been partially facilitated through the Pauquachin. She said they are working with Homewood Health to provide mental health services and training opportunities for members of her community.

“Everything had been coming together quite well,” Harris said.

That changed somewhat, when as part of the public discussion on what might happen with the property, it was revealed that the Pauquachin would restrict access to the remaining 75 acres in order to continue their cultural practices.

That set off a strong reaction from nearby residents and parents and teachers from Kelset Elementary School. The land in question contains a popular hiking and walking trail. It would be cut off if the Pauquachin follow through on their plans.

Stella Waterman, a member of a recently formed group called Friends of the Loop Trail, said she’s been using the trail for 25 years, three times a week. The group was formed, she said, to raise awareness of who uses the trail and the potential for it to be lost.

There was a sudden outpouring of anger and concern over losing access to the trail — something that Harris  said could have been avoided had people just approached her or other members of the Pauquachin First Nation.

LAU WELN EW Mountain itself looms large in local First Nations cultural history — it was where the native people of the Saanich Peninsula went during the great flood. Ever since, Harris said it has been the site of spiritual practices from WSANEC nations, as well as their extended families from up-Island and even from Washington State.

Harris said they wish that people would approach this issue with respect and by not exploiting the values they hold dear.

“We do not wish to have our spiritual ceremonies exploited,” she said. “They are private and have been that way for years.”

Harris added their plans for the land do not include developing it, but maintaining it as it is today. Having said that, Harris said she hopes individuals with the Friends of the Loop Trail or the school speak with them directly — as she has not ruled out supervised educational visits to the area in the future.

“The Pauquachin are stewards of this land on behalf of the other WSANEC nations,” she said. “That’s why we’re willing to stand up, with integrity, and buy the land. It’s worth much more to us.”

The Pauquachin, a community of around 403 people, continue to negotiate with UVic, Homewood Health and the District of North Saanich. Harris said an agreement could come as early as mid-to-late September.