Snuneymuxw Chief Michael Wyse (Xumtilum) grew up fishing at the kwula’xw village site with his grandfather — a place that has been cared for by his community for countless generations.
“You learn how to be a man, how to be a grown up, in that area,” Wyse said.
With key cultural areas including ceremonial baths, kwula’xw and the surrounding area — stretching between what’s been briefly known as Fielding Road and Clifford Road along the Nanaimo River — was never given up by Snuneymuxw.
Instead, 169 years ago, it was stolen by the Crown, undermining the nation’s pre-confederation treaty of 1854.
Now, after a partnership with a private landowner Seacliff Properties, Snuneymuxw is taking back ownership of 41 hectares of land in a deal stemming from four years of negotiations.
Wyse said that the land transfer will mean more of its nearly 2,000 members — most of whom don’t live on reserve because of a limited land base — can move home. With only 266 hectares of reserve land combined, Snuneymuxw First Nation has the smallest per capita land base in the entire province.
“While nothing can reconcile what was lost, this partnership with Seacliff sets up a meaningful reconciliation with the private sector,” said Wyse.
“We are prioritizing helping our people return to Snuneymuxw. That means ensuring we have affordable housing and infrastructure that meets the needs of our growing nation. We are working to ensure more of our people can live here and thrive as the ancestors intended.”
‘It’s not just a piece of land, it’s a connection’
Snuneymuxw First Nation’s reclamation of kwula’xw is unique in using negotiations with a private landowner to bypass barriers to nation-to-nation negotiations which can often wind up in the courts.
This land transfer agreement — signed on May 18 — is between Snuneymuxw First Nation and Seacliff Properties Ltd., a real estate company which took ownership of the area in 2018 for its proposed Sandstone development. The company also owns the Fairwinds golf and marina residential development on Snaw’naw’as First Nation territory, among others.
During a meal following the signing, Snuneymuxw Elder Xulsimalt (Gary Manson) shared with guests about the nation’s connections to the land, including the Snuneymuxw creation story.
“It’s not just a piece of land, it’s a connection,” he said. “I need our guests here witnessing this moment to understand how deep this return is.”
These land transfers are part of Snuneymuxw First Nation’s ongoing efforts to reclaim land and rebuild the foundation of the nation-to-nation relationship first outlined in 1854.
“Rebuilding the SFN land base preserved and protected under the Snuneymuxw Treaty of 1854 honours the solemn confirmations and promises that were made over 165 years ago on these great lands,” said Chief Wyse.
Challenges still ahead
Seacliff Properties has plans to develop 300 hectares in south “Nanaimo” — 34 hectares more than all of Snuneymuxw First Nation’s reserve land combined — intersected by Cedar Road, Highway 1 and the Duke Point Highway.
The master plan for the Sandstone project, approved by Nanaimo City Council last year, describes a mixed-use community of 2,200 single-family homes, townhouses and urban neighbourhood units, commercial centres and a light industrial tech hub interspersed with parks and trails.
The Cedar Road Neighbourhood Precinct (CRNP) of Seacliff’s plans is subject to a Mutual Benefit Agreement between Snuneymuxw and Seacliff. Part of the CRNP includes a future 10 hectares to be returned to the nation. The agreement between Snuneymuxw First Nation and Seacliff also includes an option to purchase another 60 hectares, according to a joint press release.
In 2019, the City of Nanaimo and Snuneymuxw First Nation entered into a protocol agreement which outlines ways to collaborate on land-use decisions.
However, on May 19 — just a day after the land transfer announcement — Chief Wyse condemned the city for moving to develop on a separate village site, Sxwayxum (Millstone River), without proper consultation.
The city has moved to rezone the site, located at the intersection of 1 Terminal Avenue, Comox and Mill Streets, a process which Wyse said “is actively being used to oppress the interests, concerns, and solutions of SFN.”
“The cultural significance of our Sxwayxum village site has been confirmed by our own stories, laws and traditions, as well as historical and archaeological evidence,” Wyse said in a statement.
“This unique and irreplaceable site was unlawfully stolen from our people. We will not stand by and permit it to be developed without adequate consultation.”