The T’Souke First Nation has a lot to teach the people of Sooke, says Chief Gordon Planes.
“The beginnings of the municipality of Sooke happened to the settlers taking lessons from the First Nation. The name of Sooke was taken from our name and was one that recognized and respected those beginnings,” Planes said.
But the actions of the government in the 1870s and 1880s and the harm done by the residential school system destroyed much of that relationship. The T’Souke were forced onto a reserve and a concerted effort at assimilation began.
Today, though, Planes is working hard to help recapture the ethos that sustained his people before the arrival of Europeans and to pass along lessons to the broader community.
“We once live sustainable taking only what we needed from the land and the sea. When we fished salmon, we took what we needed, but always knew to leave enough for the killer whales and the other animals,” Planes said.
“The settlers came and, within 100 years, they wiped out our resources. Their logging affected river systems and disrupted the entire ecosystem, including the First Nations. It was all connected. They never learned that.”
But the tiny T’Souke Nation, which occupies 67 hectares of land and is made up of 255 members, is determined to revive the culture of sustainability.
“We are moving back to stewards of the environment – reducing our footprint and helping to repair the damage that’s been done,” Planes said.
That philosophy was demonstrated in 2010, when solar panels were installed on the roofs of buildings on the reserve, making them self-sufficient in electrical energy. By 2013, the T’Souke were developing community greenhouses to grow crops for both domestic consumption and export.
The First Nation has also been active in the cleaning up of the Sooke basin and Planes is working to restore the oyster beds that he once harvested as a boy.
“We are working on addressing the septic fields that leech contaminants into the water. We want to educate people about food security,” Planes said.
“These things are all interrelated. We knew that centuries ago, and its a lesson we’re saying society needs to re-learn.”
But Planes recognizes that the T’Souke is a First Nation with a foot in two worlds.
This year it embarked on its first significant commercial venture when it opened a gas bar and Tim Hortons restaurant.
That development came after an Incremental Treaty Agreement was reached that ceded two 60-hectare parcels of Crown land to the T’Souke Nation to allow for light industrial development opportunities.
“We (the T’Souke and the municipality) have to transition together and it won’t happen overnight. The jobs provided by that venture were important to our community,” Planes said.
Asked about problems of discrimination, drug and alcohol abuse, homelessness and poverty, Planes took time to respond.
“Again, it’s all connected. These social issues exist everywhere and not just in First Nations, but sometimes we get painted with the same brush. All any of us can do is to constantly teach and re-teach the lessons of the past to each new generation and work toward healthy communities,” he said.
Planes maintained that, as a T’Souke leader, he works to keep a strong cultural identity and work care for the land. As a Canadian, he says, he’ll spread the message to the broader community that we all need to pick up the pace on caring for the environment.
“The world has made us all interdependent, and we need to learn to live with less,” he said.
“The choices we make today will have an effect for hundreds of years, and affect our children who aren’t yet born. That’s the lesson we want to pass on to others.”