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Songhees, Oak Bay embark on shared knowledge project for popular beach

Sitchanalth/Willows, a known historic village site, remains popular with visitors today
The Sitchanalth/Willows Shared Knowledge Project is a shared approach to developing a vision for this stretch of land and foreshore in Oak Bay. (Christine van Reeuwyk/News Staff)

The popularity of a stretch of beach in what is now known as Oak Bay dates back well beyond when first explorers arrived.

Those sandy shores are the root of a new initiative between the Songhees Nation and the district that sprouts this spring. The Sitchanalth/Willows Shared Knowledge Project is a shared approach to developing a vision of the Sitchanalth, widely known as Willows Beach and Willows Beach Park.

“This is very important land and foreshore for all Lekwungen-speaking people, both for its history as a village site and for its connectivity to TI’ches, our islands immediately offshore. We appreciate Oak Bay’s efforts at a government-to-government relationship but much work remains, and this is a start of building that relationship,” Songhees Chief Ron Sam said in a statement.

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Intentions include informing how Oak Bay and the Songhees Nation can together manage future land-use changes and potentially serve as a model for other local governments working with First Nations partners.

This project will involve council and staff of both groups as well as Songhees knowledge keepers.

Sitchanalth holds deep historic, cultural, social, and spiritual values for Indigenous peoples. Understanding these values is key to guiding future changes on this land. There is also a need to reflect the long pre-colonial history of this area more accurately through signage and language as well as explore ways to restore cultural activities of importance to the Lekwungen people.

“Oak Bay council is actively looking to support reconciliation, and this initiative is an exciting opportunity to work on an area identified as a priority by one of our First Nations neighbours,” Mayor Kevin Murdoch said.

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The park and beach are also of significant value to residents of Oak Bay and beyond. The foreshore lies within the federal Victoria Harbour Migratory Bird Sanctuary. The park and beach provide green space and are long-standing social and community gathering places.

The province, through Heritage BC, will fund $40,000 of the estimated $50,000 project.

Oak Bay-Gordon Head MLA Murray Rankin is pleased the province could support meaningful reconciliation work.

“Shared approaches to lands and open dialogue are the best way to establish positive relationships for the decades to come. Sitchanalth/Willows is a place of great interest to the Songhees, Oak Bay, and people from across the region; it’s exciting to see what will come from this shared approach to planning on this site,” Rankin said.

The Sitchanalth/Willows Shared Knowledge Project is expected to start this spring with the selection of a facilitator and development of the project framework. The project will conclude prior to July 30, 2024.

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