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This totem pole, carved by Chief Mungo Martin in 1956, was at the time the largest totem pole in the world. It stands at Beacon Hill Park in Victoria, where a First Nations longhouse is proposed.

Traditional Longhouse Proposed in Historical First Nations Territory At Beacon Hill Park

Richard Walker

A First Nations longhouse is proposed at Beacon Hill Park, within Esquimalt and Songhees First Nations’ historical territory in Victoria, British Columbia, replacing a dilapidated 80-year-old pavilion. The site overlooks a First Nations burial site.

The longhouse may be completed by July 1, 2017, the 150th anniversary of the formation of the Dominion of Canada.

The Victoria City Council has approved the project, with one council member calling it “a historic step toward reconciliation.” The city earlier set aside the slope to the southeast of the hilltop for reburial of First Nations remains uncovered during city public works excavations.

The 200-acre Beacon Hill Park is within the Esquimalt and Songhees First Nations’ historical territory. The Hudson’s Bay Co. posted beacons on a point there as navigational aids, hence its name, in 1843. The area was set aside as a protected area in 1858 by James Douglas, governor of what was then the Colony of Vancouver Island, and it was established as a city park in 1882.

The park features views of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, woodland and shoreline trails, playgrounds, ponds and gardens. Its native landscape includes arbutus (also known as madrona), Douglas fir, Garry oak, western red cedar, camas, Oregon grape, snowberry, and trillium. The park is habitat for ducks, Canada geese, herons, raccoons, river otters, squirrels, and other animals.

A pavilion was built on the hilltop in 1936, but fell into disrepair and disuse in the 1970s. Then, in late 2015, Victoria City Council member Marianne Alto proposed removing the pavilion and replacing it with a traditional longhouse built by the First Nations. The longhouse would serve as a carving studio “where they would train their next generation of traditional carvers,” Alto told CHEK TV, and would also be used for traditional ceremonies.

“The city would continue to own the land but would create a covenant or memorandum … which would enable the First Nations to use the land in perpetuity for traditional purposes only,” she told CHEK TV.

Victoria residents David Williams and Patricia Swift wrote in the Victoria Times-Colonist that the project “goes some way toward righting the historic wrongs perpetrated during the colonial era.” However, they wrote, “more needs to be done, including changing the names of some Victoria streets, such as Trutch Street, named after one of the most racist, damaging and least principled administrators of the colonial era.”

The Times-Colonist reported, “Returning the site to First Nations use provides the city with an opportunity to fulfill a commitment to act on recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” which investigated abuses of First Nations children during the residential school era and called for “collective efforts from all peoples … to revitalize the relationship between Aboriginal peoples and Canadian society,” with the goal of healing generational traumas and bolstering intercultural understanding.

“It is a goal that will take the commitment of multiple generations but when it is achieved, when we have reconciliation, it will make for a better, stronger Canada,” the commission reported.

In a large sense, the Beacon Hill longhouse will be a historical restoration project.

In the time of the grandparents’ grandparents, Songhees longhouses extended from Songhees Point on James Bay north to what is now the Upper Harbor, according to the Songhees Nation website. There is evidence of a First Nations village at Point Finlayson in Beacon Hill Park. According to the park website, the hilltop where the longhouse will be built was known by the First Nations as Meeacan, “because from a distance, it looked like the belly of a large man lying on his back.”

In 1956, Kwakwaka'wakw Chief Mungo Martin and carvers David Martin and Henry Hunt carved what was then the world's largest totem pole – 160 feet – which was raised in Beacon Hill Park. Thousands of people, including First Nations' leaders and civic and provincial leaders, attended the raising ceremony. A traditional Kwakwaka'wakw big house – built by Mungo Martin in 1953 in nearby Thunderbird Park – is located within the Royal BC Museum Cultural Precinct. There is also a big house on the Esquimalt reserve.

According to Canada’s 2011 Census, some 14,200 residents of the City of Victoria identify as Aboriginal; that’s of a total city population of 80,017. The leaders of the local First Nations governments are Chief Andrew Thomas, Sinoopun, Esquimalt First Nation; and Chief Ron Sam, Songhees First Nation. Esquimalt and Songhees are members of the British Columbia Assembly of First Nations, a political organization that represents the 203 First Nations in British Columbia.

Government services provided by the Esquimalt and Songhees First Nations to their citizens include economic development; education; health and wellness; land acquisition; protection of land, water and resources; public works; trust management; and defense of treaty rights.

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