BC Hydro signed off to local First Nations 4.5 acres of land at Rock Bay which served 90 years as a coal plant, in what the company’s CEO deemed a turning point for both reconciliation and climate change.
Matullia Holdings LP, formed in 2011 by the Esquimalt and Songhees nations to repurchase Indigenous land in Rock Bay, concluded more than a decade of negotiations Tuesday afternoon (July 26) when Esquimalt Chief Robert Thomas, Songhees Chief Ronald Sam and BC Hydro president Chris O’Riley signed documents transferring ownership of the property at Pembroke and Government streets to Matullia.
Thomas credited late chiefs Andy Thomas (Esquimalt) and Robert Sam (Songhees) for originally envisioning the transfer, restoration and repurposing of the land.
“Piece by piece, whether we have to buy it or by hook or by crook, we are getting our land back, and that means so much to our people,” he said. “To share the economic benefits of this land is going to be a beautiful thing for both nations.”
From the 1860s to the 1950s, BC Hydro’s predecessors operated a coal plant on the land that helped power Victoria, but contaminated the soil and rendered Rock Bay largely unusable for local First Nations.
BC Hydro has spent roughly $128 million since 1994 to restore the land and remove about 20,000 dump truck loads of contaminated sediment, and has worked since 2011 to transfer the property to the Esquimalt and Songhees.
Sam, getting his inspiration from a book written for the Songhees Wellness Centre, said he looks forward to sitting down with representatives of both nations to determine their vision for the land.
O’Riley said the project is emblematic of how reconciliation can be pursued through their work. He described Rock Bay, previously one of B.C.’s most contaminated industrial sites, as a metaphor for climate change and overreliance on carbon, but said it presents a good opportunity to work toward a more sustainable and reconciled future.
“I’m so pleased that transferring these lands to the Songhees and Esquimalt nations will provide their community members with the opportunity to once again practise culturally-important activities,” he said, noting it will also strengthen their role in the local economy.
The signing, facilitated by Gary Sam of the Songhees Nation, featured performances by dancers, singers and drummers of the Esquimalt and Songhees nations, with the Songhees’ “Victory Song” and “Celebration Song” involving four generations and embodying the sentiment around the transfer of the land.
Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps said that, despite her term ending in October, the planning, finance and parks departments and city manager’s office will keep the Esquimalt and Songhees “in good hands” on the repurposing of the land going forward.
“Our whole of government is committed to working with your whole of government to make your visions and your dreams come to life and, most importantly, to have prosperity for your community members for the next seven generations and beyond.”
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