British Columbia

City of Victoria offers support to Songhees Nation in treaty negotiations

As part of treaty negotiations, the Songhees hopes to receive several province-owned lots in Victoria’s downtown, and the city has promised to work with the nation on whatever they decide to do with the land.

The Songhees hope the support will help pave the way for a final agreement with B.C. and Canada

Members of Victoria city council, and the Songhees Nation, as well as the Lekwungen Traditional Dancers, pose with the city's letter of support for the Nation at a ceremony on March 11, 2022. (Kathryn Marlow/CBC )

When the province is ready to hand urban land over to the Songhees Nation, Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps says her city won't stand in the way.

She said so formally in a ceremony Friday, when she handed a letter of support to Songhees Chief Ron Sam. 

The Songhees Nation is part of the Te'mexw Treaty Association, a group of five nations working together to negotiate a modern treaty with B.C. and Canada.

The association first came to the table in 1994, and is now at stage five of the six stages in B.C.'s decades-long treaty process. It's the last stage before implementation, and details are being hammered out to come to a final package which nation members then vote to ratify. 

Treaty settlement lands are one of the elements up for negotiation. In the case of the Songhees, this includes the land of their reserve in Esquimalt, as well as some crown land within municipalities that will be transferred to the Nation. Once they are, those lands are no longer part of the municipality⁠ — meaning they don't have to follow bylaws, or fit into development guidelines set by the official community plan. 

In Victoria, there are three properties at play: 613 and 615 Pandora, which was already transferred to the Songhees, as well as 1112 Wharf Street, and 430 Menzies Street. 

1112 Wharf Street in Victoria, B.C. is one of the properties the Songhees Nation would like to get from the province in treaty negotiations. It's currently operated as a paid parking lot. (Kathryn Marlow/CBC)

While the city does not own the land, and is not a party to treaty negotiations, Mayor Helps says it is stepping up now to make it clear to the province that it will not dispute the transfers. 

"The province, and Canada, consider municipalities make or break," said Helps. "We can either get in the way, or we can stand by and support. And we're choosing to stand and support." 

Songhees Chief Ron Sam, and Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps, hug at a ceremony on March 11, 2022. (Kathryn Marlow/CBC)

Chief Ron Sam says the support means a lot, and that it will go a long way in negotiations with the province. 

"So I'm happy to bring this letter forward at our next treaty meeting," said Sam.

Sam says he doesn't know what the nation will do with the land yet, but that it will provide economic opportunities for the Songhees⁠ — something leaders before him were seeking when they first entered the treaty process over 25 years ago. 

A city family

Both Sam and Helps were emotional at Friday's ceremony. They say their councils and staff have been working hard to build meaningful relationships that go beyond just intergovernmental meetings. It began when the city wanted to create a reconciliation task force, and the Songhees and neighbouring Esquimalt Nations suggested making a 'city family' instead. 

"Because, in Lekwungen culture, the family is the unit of governance," Helps learned. 

Sam says the fact that they share meals together, and attend ceremony together, allows real reconciliation work to be done. 

"The more we stand together, the more we show our citizens that, 'Hey, I'm no different than you. I have the same goals as you, maybe a bit different, but at the end of the day, our community is here, and our community wants to thrive going into the future." 

As for the treaty process, Chief Sam hopes it can all be wrapped up within three years.