It was only 27 years ago that the future of Mount Douglas Park was in jeopardy.
The District of Saanich was about to take over the land and one of its engineers had a detailed plan to introduce a road that would cut right through it.
In fact, for a short period of time in the early 1990s the land known as Mount Doug ceased to be parkland, and was the target of significant municipal initiatives. Some were scared the park would be abused, a return to the 1960s when locals used it to race their dirt bikes. Even so, it took a decade to kick out the first generation of mountain bikers, who had found an early home at Mount Douglas and were regular users in the ‘90s.
That’s when a group of locals stepped forward and said, ‘no.’ It gave birth to the Friends of Mount Douglas Society that, while small, has since become one of the most successful models of a non-profit advocacy group in Greater Victoria.
“What happened, was that Victoria still owned Mount Douglas and was ready to hand it over to Saanich,” recalls Darrell Wick, president of the Friends of Mount Doug.
However, in doing so, Victoria had to first return the land to the province. At that point, the land ceased to be a park and, in anticipation of receiving it, Saanich designed a few ideas of how to use the land before redesignating it as parkland. The one that really rubbed locals the wrong way was that of a Saanich engineer who designed an extension of Shelbourne Street that would run through the park towards Royal Oak Drive. It would have steered away from the cliff, which the current road follows, and instead it would have cut behind the Seaview Suites (then the Seaview Motel).
Pam Lewis lived on the edge of Mount Doug and was the catalyst for bringing together the group that became the Friends of Mount Doug. Wick was part of the original group with current treasurer Graham Shorthill and vice-president Claude Maurice. They formalized the society at a meeting held at Claremont secondary.
B.C. Tel also wanted to use the land, pushing for a big building on top of the mountain, Wick recalled.
“The Friends lost the battle, but we won a battle to have the building be built into the ground,” he said. “It was based on some buildings built into mountains in Switzerland.”
The building is there, and acts as a flat lookout at the parking lot at the top of Churchill Drive.
The stories don’t stop there. The Friends drew up the park charter, had it engraved into metal, and mounted it on a rock at the entrance in 1992.
“That charter holds more power than many of the park zoning bylaws,” Wick said.
They also worked hard to get Churchill Road closed in the mornings until noon. Churchill was closed on Sundays only, and there was a surprising amount of resistance. Despite that, Saanich council approved the closure and the response has been immeasurable, said Shorthill. There was a latent demand far beyond what they knew.
“The number of people walking was totally unexpected, the proportion of women using the park suddenly shot up, especially moms with strollers who can’t use the trails, and many people who aren’t comfortable going up and down single-track trails,” Shorthill said.
The Friends of Mount Doug have been instrumental in several more initiatives, the biggest being the five-year restoration and salmon enhancement of Mount Douglas Creek. There’s also been thousands of volunteer hours put in to pull invasives.
“One of the biggest surprises was when the park first came to Saanich, we looked at the land and discovered that Little Mount Douglas [on the west side] was private land, and that a lot of the west side of the park was actually private,” Shorthill said.
That included many of the trails on the west side of the mountain. Homeowners didn’t seem to know, or care, how much of their land was being treated as park.
“We took an aerial photo and brought it to the mayor and council,” Wick recalled. “Mayor Murray Coell agreed, he circled it on the map with his finger and said, ‘We need to get that land.’”
It took about 15 years but the backs of many lots, and in one case, an entire property, were purchased by Saanich and made part of the park.
“That was one of the many things Saanich did, and we are grateful for a tremendous working relationship with Saanich,” Wick said. “Most of what we do is with them, it’s been a great collaboration.”