Originally published in the Island Tides November 3, 2016 edition.
A recent meeting at Tsawout First Nation brought together Islands Trustees, CRD Directors, representatives of the Chambers of Commerce, business owners, First Nations and other community leaders from the Southern Gulf Islands.
The topic was the Experience the Gulf Islands initiative, which is focused on bringing Galiano, Mayne, Pender, Salt Spring and Saturna Islands together under a single brand and coordinating community tourism opportunities. The group is looking for ways to strengthen Island economies year round, align priorities and encourage planned investments in transportation infrastructure that will benefit locals and visitors alike.
This challenge is not new. Historically, the Southern Gulf Islands were an integral part of the regional economy of the Cowichan and Penelekut to the north and the W̱SÁNEĆ territory to the south. Loosely defined W̱SÁNEĆ means “raised up” and it also included the Saanich Peninsula, the San Juan Islands and stretched further afield to Point Roberts, Lummi and the homeland of other Indigenous people in Northwest Washington.
In the past, as it is today, Island life throughout the fall, winter and early spring months was difficult. But historically the region was economically integrated and ecologically/socially interdependent. The Southern Gulf Islands and Salish Sea were the summer home to a vibrant society of culturally diverse people. They were the key resource development and harvesting areas, transportation routes, and thrived with biodiversity. They were also inextricably linked with the mainland and Saanich Peninsula. The summer resources that were harvested on the islands sustained the people in their winter villages on the Peninsula.
The Canadian government system has named the portion of the territory north of the border as the the federal riding of Saanich-Gulf Islands and the provincial riding of Saanich North & the Islands.
For W̱SÁNEĆ, unlike what the name of the provincial riding suggests, the Gulf Islands were not an afterthought, rather, they have always been an essential part of the whole. The islands are part of our family and the glue that bound the eastern and western shores of the Salish Sea.
These days, Gulf Islanders are working to establish sustainable, year-round economies. In part, because independence has replaced the interdependence that at one time allowed the culture to thrive, wealth to accumulate and people/biodiversity to flourish.
Of course it’s different now, but there’s something to be learned from life-rhythms of the W̱SÁNEĆ. The Gulf Islands and Saanich Peninsula are still fundamentally connected—the Salish Sea still provides the transportation route. Islanders come into the Saanich Peninsula for shopping, health services and recreation, which in turn stimulate business. The Gulf Islands offer world-class destinations with trails, beaches, vibrant arts and culture, serenity, peace and mindfulness for residents of the Saanich Peninsula and beyond.
But it’s not just about business; it’s about becoming people of the region and it’s about how we understand our connection to this ancient place.
It’s exciting to be part of the collaborative discussions about creating deeper interconnectivity between the Gulf Islands and the Saanich Peninsula and perhaps one day creating stronger connections to the San Juan Islands and Northwest Washington.
There are tough challenges to creating sustainable, resilient communities. Increased population, housing, transportation, pollution, and healthcare services are just a few of the factors to be considered.
Most importantly it is our responsibility to protect the ecologically diverse and sensitive Salish Sea and nurture its complex and frail ecosystems. Perhaps if we take note of the rhythms of the past and find ways to interact with our territory guided by the wisdom that served the W̱SÁNEĆ people for centuries we will create a more vital collection of integrated communities that are part of the whole.
Never has overcoming this challenge been more important as governments and corporations push for the industrialization of the Salish Sea, which is threatening the environment, and is contrary to the economic and social needs of the region.
Saanich North-Gulf Islands is one region with distinct, unique parts that have always been better, together. By strengthening the physical connections and aligning the cultural and community vision and values we will “raise up” the entire area, together.