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Community spirit, natural scenery define quality of life on Saanich Peninsula

Challenges facing quality of life include demographic changes, climate change
Ryan Trelford, who grew up in North Saanich, said one of the underrated aspects of North Saanich, is its status as a transportation hub as the site of Victoria International Airport and the BC Ferries terminal at Swartz Bay. (Wolf Depner/News Staff)

You might say that Kelsea Bissenden lives a double life.

She has an office job with a large pension service provider. But once she clocks out of her home office in Sidney, you are likely to find her in Central Saanich, working on the farm that has been in the possession of the Bickford Family, since the 1920s.

It’s a big part of her life, especially during the summer when the days are long and the family gatherings large.

“Farming on our family farm is something we will never take for granted and feel very fortunate to have,” she said. “Some of our fondest memories come from being on the farm. It is a place that brings everyone together for one common goal and it’s very rewarding at the end of the season to see all the hard work pay off.”

But Bissenden still encounters surprise when she tells others about the farming part of her life and the farm itself is now part of a larger commercial operation that includes a construction company.

“For us, we want to have the balance between farming and our other lives,” she said. “We all have different jobs, none of us do this full time.”

As such, the farm and the family behind it speak to the history of the Saanich Peninsula as a rural farming region but also its development into something more urban, a transition welcomed by some, while rejected by others.

Many would argue it is precisely the current mix of the rural and the urban that gives the Saanich Peninsula, as represented by its three municipalities, its special flavour.

RELATED: Central Saanich farms generated $24.1 million in revenue in 2021

When asked what he would like to see improved as part of maintaining or even improving the quality of life on the Saanich Peninsula, Sidney resident Kenny Podmore offered this response.

“You might not like the answer I’m going to give you, but I’m going to say nothing,” he said.

Podmore, a citizen of the United Kingdom, first visited Sidney in 1997 before settling in late 1998. Podmore said Sidney’s natural beauty is unprecedented. “To me, there is no place like it,” he said. “I have travelled around a lot. It’s just beautiful. It still maintains the small-town feeling, even with development.”

Podmore, who is perhaps Sidney’s and the region’s biggest cheerleader by virtue of his role as Sidney Town Crier, also praises the region’s community spirit. “It manifests itself with the local organizations, the events that are held,” he said. “And when I talk about community spirit, the three municipalities always come together and help each other. That is one of the things I love about this place.”

Long-time Sidney resident Elyse Barkley, who co-owns two businesses in Sidney, agrees with Podmore. “I love how everybody is so quick to help out and support one another,” she said. “The scenery is beautiful, but the number one thing is the community and that everybody is so community-minded.”

She also likes the visual mix of the community. “You can be in a downtown core, shop and then end up at a beach at the end of the road,” she said in reference to Beacon Avenue.

RELATED: Sidney’s changing face

Like Barkley, Ryan Trelford grew up on the Saanich Peninsula, in his case in North Saanich.

“The number one that I share with people is that we are on the ocean,” he said, when asked what he tells people when they ask him about North Saanich. “We are surrounded by water on three sides in North Saanich and for me, a big part growing up and still to this day, is being on the ocean, either boating, swimming, being on the beach, fishing. It’s very much a part of our community and what makes us West Coast. That is the special part of North Saanich.”

Trelford grew up near Dean Park. “(It) was a quiet and still rural area,” he said of his youth in recalling playing near Sansbury Elementary School, now Allegro Dance Studio. “A lot of kids around. It was an exciting time to be young. There were parks, where you could go off on a bike ride and not have to worry too much about traffic.”

Overall, North Saanich hasn’t changed much, said Trelford. But the prospect of future growth has caused no small measure of anxiety in the community, as evident by the divisive tone accompanying the current review of the Official Community Plan (OCP).

“As I have gotten older, I have experienced a lot of the arguments. North Saanich seems to be a fairly dramatic place with people who are pro-development and anti-development,” he said. Trelford said he can appreciate the wants of those people who don’t want development because they want the community to retain its rural character. But he also expressed understanding for those who would like to see more housing and ultimately more families in the region as other parts of Greater Victoria become more unaffordable.

“To make North Saanich a better place, we all need to try to get along a little better, to have a conversation, rather than to get into an argument right away,” he said.

Looking ahead, a growing chorus of voices has been warning of tough times ahead. Unless the region starts to supply more affordable housing, local businesses will find it increasingly more difficult to find staff. The Saanich Peninsula already trends older than the rest of Greater Victoria and available data shows families with children and adults in their prime earning years favour the more affordable West Shore. True, the region is growing, but not nearly at the same pace as other parts of Greater Victoria.

Other challenges also loom. They include the effects of climate change, something Bissenden and her family have experienced first-hand. Consistently getting water to their crops has been a challenge, she said. “Like last year, our crops were very dry,” she said.

But despite all the existing and future challenges, Bissenden said her family has no plans to get out of farming, even if it is just a secondary endeavour, balanced with full-time jobs and children.

Ultimately, all the toil is about preserving something bigger.

“We want our children to have it as something they can do with us,” she said. “Our biggest reward is being able to keep the family name and the farm alive in our community by carrying it on over the years.”

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Wolf Depner

About the Author: Wolf Depner

I joined the national team with Black Press Media in 2023 from the Peninsula News Review, where I had reported on Vancouver Island's Saanich Peninsula since 2019.
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