Ian Cesarec is the Songhees Lands Enforcement officer who regularly patrols the two Chatham Islands and north Discovery. (Travis Paterson/News Staff)

The Chatham Islands are not public property

A day in the life, protecting Songhees’ sacred lands

Contrary to what many boaters think, the charming beaches of east and west Chatham Island and those on the north half of Discovery Island are not open to the public.

The Islands, known traditionally as T’ches, or Tlchess (meaning one Island, as they meet by rock at low tide), were never ceded and were not handed over in the Douglas Treaty. They always were, and will remain, traditional Songhees land. 

The only jurisdiction the Canadian government has over the islands is the first 70 metres of air space, in which Transport Canada permits the Songhees to use a drone for surveillance. Anyone caught removing items of cultural significance (or anything, really) from the Islands can be hit with huge fines.

READ MORE: Lone wolf eating seal, howling happily on Disovery Island

Seven years into his job doing Songhees Lands Enforcement, Ian Cesarec is still fighting an uphill battle to break decades of invasive habits by non-natives who believe, sometimes innocently, that they have a right to visit either of the Chatham islands or north Discovery (south Discovery is B.C. Parks land and shares a border, and a wolf, with Songhees).

“Even the beach and the foreshore are not public,” Cesarec said. “This place is eroding, the islands are eroding, and the edges of the traditional lands where Songhees once lived are now under under water.”

Only a kilometre offshore from Oak Bay, and even closer to Saanich’s Ten Mile Point, the wind-swept trees and native ecosystem (even despite the Scotch broom and ivy invasion) of the Chathams and north Discovery just look different.

There are literally hundreds of seals and the water is crystal clear.

In his run-ins with island visitors Cesarec has been threatened more than once. Visitors, feel it’s their right to be there, and don’t take kindly to being told “it is not their right to be there.”

Few, including Cesarec, have Songhees’ permission to visit the islands.

“The most common problem is boaters lighting campfires on the beach,” Cesarec said. “Others camp, or make trails, and remove wood. We also have a problem with people leaving human waste here.”

Cesarec and the Songhees had a heck of a time dousing a fire that lit up a beach on east Chatham last summer. One good storm will load the beach with wood and in the spring and summer droughts it dries fast.

“It’s a lot of fuel, and it wouldn’t take much to damage these sacred sites.”

Even from five metres offshore, which is a good distance for kayakers, you can see that the bark of fir trees has been carved off for medicinal purposes.

READ MORE: Songhees revisit historic lands

The Songhees used the water to travel their territory from Metchosin to the San Juan Islands. They traditionally had summer and winter villages on Chatham, Discovery, Willows Beach, Cadboro Gyro Park and Uplands. Now, there are houses, buildings and roads on top of old village sites, burial sites and long homes. 

But they haven’t lived on Chatham since the well went dry in 1957. Maybe if they were still there, it would be easy to kick off everyone else.

reporter@oakbaynews.com

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