Desecration and rebirth on Mount Doug
How white settlers undid centuries of productive farming in only a few years
Note from the publisher: When Nathalie Chambers and her husband, David, first took over Madrona Farm, 27 acres in Saanich with a deep history, they never thought their small-scale agricultural business would blossom into an international political act. Saving Farmland: The Fight for Real Food introduces readers to stories of lost farmland and bees saving lives. It shows how sustainability, ecosystems and biodiversity transcend the paradox of our own, man-made losses. This practical book teems with fascinating history and facts. Saving Farmland will help us all support local farming and sustainable land development so we can indulge in good eating-forever. The following is an excerpt from Saving Farmland: The Fight for Real Food.
Madrona Farm lies on the western slopes of PKols — or “White Head” — as Mount Douglas was originally called in the native language. Located on traditional lands that the Saanich people have stewarded since their ancestors gathered around the edges of melting glaciers, PKols held special significance as a meeting place. From its 213-metre (700-ft.) head, different families and nations exchanged news, and viewed the weather, the surrounding waters and the people paddling home from nearby islands. They hunted and roamed freely. In those early days, Haro Strait on the eastern side of PKols connected with Blenkinsop Lake on its western foot.
Gradually the sea receded, revealing Blenkinsop Valley, graced with fertile soil. For thousands of years, native peoples thrived in the area by listening to their elders. They learned how to identify and treat each ecosystem with respect. They understood how to maximize the available diversity. They forecast the best window for harvesting and coordinated other seasonal activities. Although they manipulated plants and their environments to promote the growth of culturally preferred specimens, the people also worked with care to enhance specific plant communities. “Keeping it living” was their mantra.
Knowing which bulbs were edible and which poisonous, the native peoples on the island managed camas plots as sustainable farmers do. For more than 2,000 years, they tended berry plots. “Burning specialists” carefully timed burns to produce more and better blueberries or blackberries. Such burns ensured reproduction, thus increasing yields of edible roots in native agricultural patches up and down the coast. They cared for hundreds of species of plants, from red cedars on hillsides to tiny bog plants in river estuaries. They understood the immense mulching and restorative benefits of the salmon runs. They nourished the soil, using special digging sticks to aerate their productive farmlands. They welcomed the wild rosehips after the first frost. They calculated when their favourite berries would be ready to pick and when it was time to greet different birds as they flew back from migration. They understood the animals skirting the bases of their favourite trees, and they knew how and why to preserve those same trees, as well as the ponds, lakes and rivers. The native peoples traded information amongst their many cultures, so that over the centuries, their cedar baskets filled not only with food but also with current and ancient knowledge of how to support the habitat that so fully supported them.
The Pacific Coast native perspective on agricultural development recognized that the creation of resources was already complete. With nature already in abundance — providing constantly appreciated wealth — humans “merely tend, nurture and respectfully, thankfully, take what is needed. Where people seek balance and harmony as a way of life, the earth and its resources become equal partners in an endless cycle of respectful life.” The native model, which thrived for thousands of years prior to European contact, is diametrically opposed to current culture, “which demands that humans dominate the environment and profit from it.”
Until a little over a century and a half ago, native cultures in the vicinity of modern-day Madrona Farm thrived, as their deep understanding of the lavish land wove through every part of their society. Then European and American people arrived to “settle” the land. In 1850, a series of treaties was negotiated by Vancouver Island’s governor James Douglas, with local peoples and signed by leaders of the Songhees Nation, wherein native leaders transferred land title to the Hudson’s Bay Company.
Called the Douglas Treaties, they involved 14 land-title purchases, with land exchanged for money, clothing and blankets. They formed the only treaties made with aboriginal peoples in British Columbia for nearly 150 years, until the Nisga’a Treaty in 2000. Perhaps the Songhees Nation signed the Douglas Treaties because it had been assured the people would be allowed to “roam freely” over the traditional lands. The Saanich Peninsula cost the company £109, seven shillings and sixpence for the approximate total of 386 wool blankets, which the various native leaders preferred to receive instead of cash. However, as University of British Columbia researcher Wilson Duff mentions:
“Why did Douglas not sign the treaties himself? As agent of the company and the Crown, he was one of the parties to the transactions. He took pains to have the other party [the Indians] make their ‘signatures’ and had his employees witness them, but nowhere did he affix his own signature. Why are all the Indian X marks so regular? It is not because the documents are copies, for it is clear from other indications that they are the originals. Could the answer lie in the manner in which the marks were made, perhaps with the Indian just placing his hand on the pen as Douglas made the mark?”
As the settlers took more and more ground, introduced alcohol and imposed a new religion, they ripped the foundations of native cultures apart. Rather than listening with respect to honour lessons they could have learned about how best to sustain both themselves and the land, the new people chose only to force the natives to abandon caring for the whole area and to confine themselves to selected “Indian Reserves.”
When the Hudson’s Bay Company logged PKols to build Fort Victoria in 1843, it destroyed the majority of enormous native cedars that had prompted the colonials to bestow the little mountain with the name Cedar Hill. Douglas firs grew up to overshadow the remaining smaller cedars. However, in 1889, the white settlers made a pronouncement. Henceforth, this site, sacred to the local First Peoples, would be preserved as a park — but it would be renamed Mount Douglas after Queen Victoria’s representative, Sir James Douglas.
The newly christened Mount Douglas quickly lost its fertility. When its slopes eroded — first due to logging, then as a result of three major fires followed by rain — the native peoples had to rebury the bones of their ancestors. White settlers — not communicating with native peoples and not seeking to understand their surroundings — also destroyed a native midden at the foot of the mountain, a place that had long been an important all-tribes meeting centre. Paddlers used to come to what is now called Mount Douglas Park beach from all over Saanich and the San Juan Islands for clambakes and cultural exchanges. After such affronts to the mountain’s significance to aboriginal culture, recent efforts point toward reclaiming it. In the spring of 2013, Tsawout First Nation chief Erik Pelkey led a march up to the mountain’s peak to share stories and rekindle awareness of its origin.
Despite their ignorant approach to aboriginal knowledge, sacred sites and culture, white settlers in the mid-1800s did work valiantly within the limi- tations of their European cultural understanding to create a productive food base on the land they had taken over. Farmers grow food on this southern tip of Vancouver Island 12 months a year because the area is in a perfect rain shadow, surrounded on three sides by Washington’s Olympic and Cascade Mountains, Vancouver’s Coast Mountains and the Vancouver Island ranges.
Victoria is situated in a climate much like that of the Mediterranean, having only 92.7 centimetres (36.5 in.) of annual rainfall compared to Vancouver’s 145.5 (57.3) or North Vancouver’s 252.2 (99.3). The land around Mount Douglas also consists of nine different types of soil, including white beach sand, which provides a rich mineral base for top-quality produce. A biodiversity hot spot, the area around Mount Douglas is part of the Garry oak and associated ecosystems — hosting 137 different pollinators. Food lovers find all of this within a 12-minute drive from downtown Victoria.