Mother Nature creates ideal traditional ceremony

Songhees, Oak Bay come together for canoe welcome and community picnic

Members of the Songhees Nation bring Oak Bay councillors

Members of the Songhees Nation bring Oak Bay councillors

After weeks of sunshine and dry weather, a warm, light summer drizzle dampened things enough to create intimacy for a cultural bond between two nations in Oak Bay.

Sparkling sun shone as dignitaries boarded a canoe at Oak Bay Marina followed by a short cultural tour with a Songhees guide before heading to Willows Beach.

“The most powerful thing was it was foggy and the fog lifted. We went on the water and we had a beautiful ride,” said Mark Salter, cultural tourism development for the Songhees Nation.

“The very second we stepped out of the canoe to come to shore it started to rain.”

Pulled through the waters by the Songhees youth racing team ‘Savage 11,’ the canoe held Kevin Murdoch, Tara Ney, Eric Zhelka and Hazel Braithwaite along with MLA Andrew Weaver, Murray Rankin and Oak Bay High student Brandon Schellenberger.

“This ritual would be repeated often when families came to visit or do business… they came with good hearts and so were welcomed,” Salter said.

“The chief spoke very elegantly and at length about the significance of the event. This was a really good expression of that growing relationship of mutual respect. It got personal … the group got smaller and smaller as the rain got bigger.”

It was a day to drop the Tweed curtain and raise the camas veil, Salter says.

As part of the opening festivities for the Oak Bay Arts and Culture Festival that finished Sunday.

“It was a welcoming ceremony on the shores of Oak Bay for the first time in over a century,” said Coun. Hazel Braithwaite who served as MC for the day.

“It was probably one of the most emotional and moving things I’ve ever done as a councillor. It was just so meaningful. There were times I was holding back the tears.”

Songhees Chief Ron Sam, dressed in traditional regalia greeted the canoe at the shoreline, the beach by then quite full with residents and guests.

“This is a fairly traditional ceremony,” said Coun. Kevin Murdoch. “It reflects what happened in the times when travel happened by canoe. As acting mayor I asked permission to come ashore and Chief Sam spoke very eloquently and welcomed us ashore.”

The little bit of rain, drove some people home allowing for a genuine and honest exchange between the community and the people of Oak Bay, Salter said.

By the time the speeches were done, the crowd had dwindled to create a more personal setting.

“The rain and the reduced crowd as a result made the presentation and comments much more intimate and personal and emotional. It was quite powerful. Everybody there was really quite impacted by it,” Murdoch said.

“It was also recognizing that history with the Songhees Nation and First Nations on the land and that foundation that led to Oak Bay. … Having the chance to participate in that as acting mayor was pretty special. It was for me personally a very special moment.”

Perhaps that’s what inspired Songhees elder Joan Morris, traditional name Sellemah, to present him with a spur-of-the-moment blanket after offering her planned prayer.

“It just happened and I think that’s the most genuine,” Salter said.

Sellemah is the last surviving member of the Chatham Island community, and lived her first two decades on the Island adjacent to Oak Bay.

The Songhees own Chatham Island and a fair chunk of Discovery Island, which is also the site of a provincial park.

They are not disputed territories, but established reserves that have also been home to the Songhees for thousands of years.

The event finished with a performance by the Lekwungen dancers and residents and guests coming to gather for a community picnic.

“[This ceremony] was a really good opportunity for us to enhance our relationship with the Songhees,” Braithwaite said.