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SISȻENEM (Halibut Island) transfers to W̱SÁNEĆ Leadership Council under historic agreement

The Land Conservancy purchased the 9.67-acre island for $1.55 million with help from unnamed donor
Ownership of SISȻENEM — also known as Halibut Island located east off Sidney Island — has transferred to W̱SÁNEĆ Leadership Council after The Land Conservancy of British Columbia (TLC) had purchased the island for $1.55 million. (The Land Conservancy/Submitted)

Local Indigenous and non-Indigenous leaders are hailing the historic transfer of an island just off Sidney as a major reconciliation.

The W̱SÁNEĆ Leadership Council representing Tsartlip, Tseycum, and Tsawout First Nations and The Land Conservancy of British Columbia (TLC) have announced an agreement that will transfer title of SISȻENEM – also known as Halibut Island located east off Sidney Island – from the charitable land trust to the W̱SÁNEĆ Leadership Council.

TLC purchased the 9.67-acre island for $1.55 million with the support of one major, unnamed donor and the transfer marks the first of its kind between a land trust and an Indigenous community in Canada. In January 2020, a local real estate agent listed the island for just $2 million. The island is off the grid but receives cell service, and lacks permanent structures.

RELATED: Private island on the Saanich Peninsula for sale for the first time in 50 years

Chief Don Tom, Tsartlip First Nation and chair of the W̱SÁNEĆ Leadership Council, said the return of the island marks a “meaningful step” in reconciling Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal in line with the larger premise that reconciliation is everyone’s responsibility.

“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,” said Tom.

TLC acquired the island to proteect its cultural, ecological, and geological significance after Tara Martin, head of the UBC Faculty of Forestry Conservation Decisions Lab, brought it to TLC’s attention.

“SISȻENEM is an ecological and cultural jewel,” said Martin, adding only a handful of islands like it remain in the Salish Sea. “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.”

Cathy Armstrong, TLC’s executive director, said her organization will work with the W̱SÁNEĆ Leadership Council and Martin to develop an eco-cultural restoration plan.

“TLC is humbly grateful for the opportunity to facilitate this ground-breaking transfer of title for the benefit of future generations,” she said.

The island’s name of SISȻENEM roughly translates to ‘sitting out for pleasure of the weather’ and W̱SÁNEĆ Elder SELILIYE (Belinda Claxton) has fond memories of the island, remembering among other aspects the wildflowers’ fragrance.

“Sometimes I get a whiff of it when I go out in the spring,” she said. “It brings back such beautiful childhood memories. It was so natural and so pleasant to be able to see that when I was a child. This is the sort of experience I want my children and my grandchildren to have. I don’t want them seeing it in the picture. There are not many places like this left.”

RELATED: Tsartlip First Nation takes possession of former Woodwynn Farm

This transfer to W̱SÁNEĆ Leadership Council marks the second major property announcement involving local Indigneous people in recent months.

Tsartlip First Nation assumed ownership of the former Woodwynn Farm property in mid-December and is currently consulting its membership about best possible uses for the 78-hectare property, which promises to help the nation expand its land base.

The land, once used by the Tsartlip First Nation for hunting, farming and traditional practices, lies next to the nation’s only reserve. With more than 1,000 members, the community has run out of space to fulfill housing, recreational and cultural needs.

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Tara Martin, head of the UBC Faculty of Forestry Conservation Decisions Lab, checks out some of the wildflowers that grow on SISȻENEM, also known as Halibut Island located east off Sidney Island. Martin had brought the island to the attention of The Land Conservancy of British Columbia (TLC), which subsequently bought the island, then transferred ownership to W̱SÁNEĆ Leadership Council under an historic first. (Alex Harris/Submitted)