While the fate of the Royal Roads University site and its surrounding grounds is still undecided, the university and the Songhees Nation have taken another step towards an outcome.
Songhees Nation Chief Ron Sam and Allan Cahoon, Royal Roads president and vice-chancellor, signed a framework agreement Tuesday evening during a small ceremony at the university in Colwood. The agreement builds on the memorandum of understanding both parties signed a year ago after the Department of National Defence (DND) started considering options for disposing of the site in 2016.
“We just want to be respected in our territory,” Sam said before the ceremony. “We’ve been negotiating a modern day treaty for the last 24 years and it’s rather remarkable to say that to be honest … Our past leadership entered into good-faith negotiations with provincial and federal governments many, many years ago and with this land being declared surplus by DND we saw an opportunity to really ask for it to be put on the table for consideration.”
Now, almost 25 years into the process, Sam said they’ve lost those who started negotiations and still haven’t been able to grow their community. The Songhees Nation sits on almost 170 acres that is home to approximately 350 members. However, the Nation has more than 650 members but a lack of homes and space to expand means many have had to find housing elsewhere.
Sam noted there is a misconception that Songhees Nation plans to take over the site and kick out the university. “That’s not what this is about, this is about working in collaboration … to see their long term vision for what they need here at Royal Roads’ lands but also sharing our vision as a community and a people.”
The Nation has hired land consultants and planners to craft an extensive plan for the site, which Sam said is almost complete. He added it also takes into consideration the ecosystems on the site and the needs of stakeholders in the area.
“Hopefully, we’ll be able to roll that out soon,” he said, adding they want to be respectful and meet with all stakeholders, including the City of Colwood, Esquimalt Nation and environmental groups, before making those plans public.
The framework signed this week clarifies joint objectives for the future of the property once its outcome has been determined by DND. In total, the site is more than 560 acres and one of the key objectives in the framework is the university’s acquisition, by fee simple ownership, of roughly 170 to 180 acres for the campus and its future needs.
Royal Roads currently leases the site from DND with a long-term pre-paid lease.
Other objectives outlined include developing program opportunities that serve the education needs of the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations and other Indigenous communities, preservation of heritage buildings, gardens, viewscapes and other historical or cultural values throughout the Royal Roads lands, and plans on how to integrate the campus into the remainder of the property.
Cahoon noted there may also be opportunities for some shared assets as well.
During this process, Cahoon said they’ve been thinking about what the land means to the university and whether they could simply pick up and put down roots somewhere else. But that’s not something the university wants to see. “This kind of environment is how we define ourselves … It’s an integral part of who we are.”
Sam noted the land also has significance to the Nation as their ancestors used the site. “It’s not just about acquiring land and economic opportunity.”
With no set timeline from DND, Sam said they are pushing forward in hopes of seeing a decision in the near future. However, they still don’t know what that decision process will look like for disposing of the land.
“Realistically, I think we’re looking at two years,” he added. “I’m hoping this process will speed up the federal process.”
Cahoon noted the university’s work with the Songhees Nation removes one of the obstacles that could be delaying that decision.
The final say sits with the Songhees Nation as members will vote on how to proceed once a decision has been made by the federal government.