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‘Paved wasteland’: Debating the vision for Spewhung and Oak Bay Marina

Songhees chief advocates for greater Indigenous presence, other proposals floated

As Oak Bay allocates five more years to determine a long-term plan for Spewhung (Turkey Head), community stakeholders continue to share visions for it while roughly 22,000 square metres go largely toward parking.

Coun. Andrew Appleton, a former volunteer with the Greater Victoria Placemaking Network, walks the site regularly and sees many options for such a prized communal area.

“We don’t have a great deal of public space in the district,” he said. While some want lots of parking at Spewhung, he added, others would like greater versatility.

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Songhees Chief Ronald Sam said Spewhung remains underutilized because it fails to commemorate the Lekwungen Peoples. His nation answered the district’s request for marina proposals in 2020 with its own plan, but was removed from the selection process early on.

“We weren’t even given respect as a government,” Sam said, calling the process obnoxious and adding he doesn’t agree with the extension of the current lease.

The Songhees are looking to expand economic development and offer a greater Lekwungen and tourist presence at Spewhung, he added. “You can’t have reconciliation without true economic reconciliation.”

Sam has not spoken with the community group ReconciliACTION Oak Bay and remains undecided about doing so. In fact, the Songhees are prepared to take legal action against the District of Oak Bay, he said, if thorough Indigenous consultation doesn’t ensue. However, Sam said he is “willing to go back to the drawing board” with council.

Rev. Craig Hiebert with St. Mary the Virgin Anglican Church, which is one of the members of ReconciliACTION Oak Bay, agreed Spewhung lacks visible Lekwungen presence and culture.

“The only idea I have is that we don’t have any preconceived ideas,” he said, describing the group as “average citizens keen to see (their) commitment put to reconciliation” through creative collaboration with the Lekwungen Peoples.

Members recently met with Esquimalt Chief Robert Thomas to discuss consultation ahead of a long-term plan for Spewhung, but Hiebert said Thomas didn’t mention specifics.

Biologist and restoration specialist Jacques Sirois sees Spewhung as offering a chance to showcase Oak Bay’s Indigenous and settler history and “a place to make reconciliation happen for real.”

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For a district that’s ripe with heritage sites and “first and foremost a Salish Sea community,” he said Oak Bay lacks a designated place to tell its history. He proposed a visitor or heritage centre designed like the former Oak Bay boathouse at Spewhung that first arrived with the ill-fated Mount Baker Hotel in the 1890s and last stood in the 1960s.

Sirois said the existing parking lot was built for Sealand of the Pacific in the late 20th century and needs to be shrunk to half its size, modernized, better maintained and equipped with suitable infrastructure for stormwater runoff.

“Maybe it could be designed to be a (proper) storm-watching site.”

He also wants action taken to address the dozens of anchored boats north of the marina that he said float unattended most of the year, degrade underwater eel-grass habitat for fish, and sometimes sink.

“We need to take better care of Oak Bay – and what I mean by ‘Oak Bay’ is the bay itself.”

Kelly Loch of the Stewardship Centre for BC went a step further, suggesting such sustainable practices as restoring fish habitat, improving beach access and adding extra sand, gravel and vegetation to absorb waves and reduce flooding and erosion. She advised against concrete seawalls or loose rock breakwaters, which are costly to install and can diminish the esthetics and environmental friendliness of the foreshore.

Community Association of Oak Bay president Kris Nichols said Spewhung offers great potential for a nice green park with picnic benches and the occasional market, but struggles as a “paved wasteland.”

“Is that really the best and highest use for such a beautiful property?” he asked. “There’s got to be something better.”

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In a 2017 process that didn’t involve First Nations, the community association gathered roughly 55 stakeholders at Spewhung and worked with the Greater Victoria Placemaking Network to present a myriad of community visions to council, which used them as background in its request for proposals. Popular ideas included a pier, farmer and artisan market, amphitheatre or performance stage, historical interpretation facility, saltwater pool and skateboard park, indicating a shared interest in activating Spewhung to a greater extent.

Afterward, association secretary and local architect John Armitage produced a rough bird’s-eye view sketch of Spewhung to help visualize various developments suggested. He said Sirois’ boathouse idea could serve as a Songhees smokehouse or Indigenous or nature interpretation centre, adding that deciding what to do with the marina, bay and land-water interface around Spewhung is crucial.

Nichols said the association has always looked toward a long-term plan for the marina and Spewhung that encompasses all community values – climate action, people-oriented public space and reconciliation.


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