Friday, Dec. 10, just after midnight marks one of the proudest moments of Marianne Alto’s career as a Victoria city councillor.
Last Thursday, council unanimously approved a resolution to repatriate the Beacon hilltop to the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations.
“I have such a great sense of privilege being involved in this project in getting it this far because it’s such a rare thing that you have an opportunity as a decision maker to be involved in something with such a tangible outcome,” Alto said.
“It was such an extraordinary moment in time. I’m sure in all our lives, there are moments that freeze in your memory . . . and I think for me, last night was one of those moments.”
Alto, along with Coun. Charlayne Thornton-Joe and Mayor Lisa Helps, brought forward the resolution as a result of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action, released last summer that revealed the wrongdoings of Canadians against First Nations in residential schools.
The Checkers Pavilion, a cross-shaped lookout building, currently occupies the hilltop, but it has not been used since the 1970s and was labelled unsafe to enter in 1995.
As part of the repatriation, the pavilion will be torn down, allowing local First Nations to build a roughly 2,000-square-foot long house, which will be used for traditional carving, cultural activities and provide a space to train the next generation of carvers in traditional arts.
For thousands of years, the pavilion has been a well-known sacred site for local First Nations, as well as First Nations from as far north as Alaska and as far south as northern California. It was seen as a social and economic gathering place where they exchanged information, goods, stories and history.
However, they lost the land in 1842 and Beacon Hill Park was turned over to the city in 1882.
“This is very personal for the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations. This was a very important area for them and having the city say, ‘as part of our journey towards reconciliation, we want to repatriate this space and work with you’,” Alto said, adding the city is one of the first on the Island to turn the calls to action into something tangible.
During the meeting, a number of members of the community stayed well into the early hours of the morning to express their support for the resolution. One woman even brought a petition that had more than 150 signatures asking the city to move ahead with the project.
The city and local First Nations will work together to decide what type of building will occupy the site and seek funding from the federal government.
Alto said the longhouse should be constructed in time for Canada’s 150th birthday celebrations in 2017.
Calls to the Esquimalt and Songhees First Nations were not returned by press time.