SERIES: Songhees reclaim historic islands

Part 2: The people who protect and restore the islands

Songhees Coun. Ron Sam

Songhees Coun. Ron Sam

Christmas Day 1985 is seared on one Oak Bay man’s mind. That day, Phil Teece doused a fire on Chatham Island.

“People don’t realize the islands are tinder dry, even in the wet season,” he said.

The avid sailor has put out flames on the Songhees lands – Chatham and a large portion of Discovery islands – for more than 50 years. Teece, James Mantle and Andrew Manning, who was not at the ceremony, were recognized recently for their work on the private property that is subject to rampant trespassing. Mantle enjoyed visits to the island until garbage, floating in from the sea and left by boaters, got to him. He started to clean the beaches of seaborne debris and the trash left by people, slowly reclaiming and rebuilding the ecosystem as it returned to its natural state.

“That, for me, is the reward, to watch it all grow back,” he said. “It’s a mystic, mystic place.”

Joan Morris is among those preserving the heritage and plant life, working with the University of Victoria to study the ecology of the islands. She lived her first 10 years on Chatham, and knows the traditional plants of the land well.

“She is very connected to the island. She was born out there, raised out there, and is doing a lot of work – over the last year and a half – to do some restoration work with UVic and Nancy Turner and some of her students looking at the ecosystem, the invasive species, to bring species at risk back to life,” said Songhees Coun. Ron Sam.

Last year she made many trips to the island – known as Tl’ches in Lekwungen –  bringing a masters student to the land that she left in 1957.

UVic student Thiago Gomes, of Brazil, worked with Morris last summer to complete his master’s thesis addressing problems and challenges of the restoration of the “cultural keystone place.” Gomes has since returned home.

“Tl’ches is such a special place. It is like a history book in a landscape and seascape, a place where people have lived healthy and happy lives and sustained themselves for countless generations,” said Turner, a biologist, ethnobotonist and Gomes’ UVic professor. The islands support edible, medicinal and otherwise useful plants that are a part of the rich cultural heritage of the islands.

“It also carries the imprint of more recent life ways, with the heritage fruit trees and other plants of more recent times, adopted into the food ways of the Songhees families who lived there,” Turner said. “The area is vulnerable in many ways to the impacts of invasive species, climate change, erosion and pollution.”

Over recent decades, since the Songhees families moved away after the well went dry in 1957, portions of the islands have deteriorated and some common species have disappeared, Turner said.

“It will take a continued and focused effort to restore and renew the vitality of the landscape. … In a sense, Tl’ches is a reflection of what a good part of Oak Bay and the Greater Victoria region was like before urbanization,” she said.

Newly instated patrols are aimed at combating the increasing amount of garbage left on the islands by trespassers, which recently included a wheelchair. Songhees bylaw enforcement, equipped with a new zodiac and RCMP will also increase patrols on and around the islands.

A show of respect for those who care

James Mantle, Phil Teece and Andrew Manning earned a lifetime pass for their work preserving the islands. It’s a card, that they should carry, issued by the Songhees Nation that certifies the men to be guests without permit or notification on the nation’s islands.

“Gentlemen like these need to be stood up and recognized by our nation for the work that they do in looking after our lands,” said Songhees Coun. Ron Sam.

The men were also given prints of the nation’s logo as thanks for their work.

• Part Three: Moving forward, patrolling the private property on Discovery and Chatham islands critical to the future.

• Read Part One here.