Following the City’s May 21 confirmation that they will temporarily allow people to shelter 24/7 in some parks if they comply with a long and absurd list of rules, some housed people freaked out about the potential environmental impacts of people sheltering at MEEGAN (beaconhill park). One angry individual set up a Facebook event suggesting that housed people camp in the park to protest the environmental impacts of homeless people camping in the park. (Yep, recreational camping to protest survival camping.) That event was subsequently cancelled, but not before all the usual stereotypes were brought out: Feces! Needles! Litter! and let’s not forget a timeless classic: “think about the children“.
This poor-bashing nonsense is NOT the only side of the story. The Humans of Beacon Hill Park, one cluster of people living at MEEGAN, recently posted a delightful exchange with housed seniors taking a leisurely stroll through the area the City recently blocked off.
Housed walker #1 [pointing to City’s pylons]: “What’s this all about?”
Humans of Beacon Hill Park: “That’s the parks trying to make us look bad because we’re camping back here because we weren’t offered a place.”
Housed walker #1: “Oh I see, it’s phony”.
Humans of Beacon Hill Park: “It is phony. All of a sudden they’re trying to call it environmentally sensitive.”
Housed walker #2: “All of a sudden they say there’s rare plants here.”
Housed walker #1: “Yeah right.”
MEEGAN: A real PLACE, NOT A colonial IDEA
MEEGAN is a Lekwungen word that means “a place to warm your belly“. It is an important place in kwetlal (camas) food systems that Lkwungen people cultivated and stewarded for thousands of years, a stewardship relationship which continues today.
Settler groups that seek power over the future of MEEGAN often whitewash past and present relations. The Friends of Beacon Hill Park talks about MEEGAN in particularly racist ways, calling thousands of years of Lkwungen relations “prehistory” as if history only begins when Europeans arrive. In 2015 the chair of Friends of Beacon Hill Park opposed return of a small portion of stolen lands and building of a longhouse where a derelict settler pavilion stood, saying the site was not appropriate for a longhouse because that would involve “removal of native plants”.
This kind of attitude is a dissociated, colonial way of viewing relations between land, plants, and people. Lkwungen lands don’t need to be protected from Lkwungen people. Lkwungen lands and people certainly don’t need white saviors to swoop in and decide what will happen.
As a starting point, we need to be real about the past and present: settlers are in no way caring stewards of MEEGAN or any other Lkwungen place. Because of the violence in how settlers came to this place and continue to relate to it, settler relationships to Indigenous lands and people have been highly dysfunctional and toxic since day one.
Settler ways of relating to land and water have caused significant damage to Lkwungen people and territories including paving and agriculture that largely destroyed oak ecosystems, introduction of highly invasive plants, destruction of tidal mudflats and clam beds at xwsзyq’әm when the land was filled in to create the Empress Hotel, and as the CRD acknowledges many other instances of habitat loss and degradation, pollution, soil erosion, damage to water flow and quality, and destruction of Indigenous plants and animals. This harmful approach is not just a thing of the past: a company building a settler golf resort blasted a sacred cave and bulldozed arbutus trees at SPAET in 2006, and a 30,000 litre diesel spill in 2016 damaged Xwsepsum (Esquimalt) people’s fisheries and beach / water access.
Settler damage specific to MEEGAN has been extensive over the years including:
- digging up Lekwungen burial cairns and removal of burial markers
- letting cattle and horses freely graze and trample sensitive ecological areas
- cutting trees for firewood
- dumping soil and garbage
- ploughing ground to set up fences and a cricket pitch
- blasting natural rock outcroppings and setting up rock quarries, brick fields, and gravel pits
- mass plantings of invasive species to make the park look and feel more like English meadows
- cutting down trees and leveling ground to build paved roads and parking lots, two playgrounds, two water parks including one with a 15-foot-tall metal watering can, bandshell/stage, golf putting green, baseball diamond, soccer field, tennis courts, lawn bowling area and petting zoo and (now derelict) bandstand
- laying pipe to feed man-made lakes
- holding mass spectator events including horse racing, mock battles, and other large-scale recreation
- installing a gunpowder storage facility
- creating a zoo
It’s not inevitable that this dysfunctional relationship continue. But until there is honesty about the violence and a reality check on who’s causing it, there’s nowhere to start. And speaking of honesty…
beaconhill park’s history: 162 years of anti-indigenous, anti-poor hate
In 1849 the British Crown entered into a 10-year lease with the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) giving the HBC control of ‘vancouver island’ for seven shillings a year. Under this lease, in exchange for access to land HBC was to further colonization, through encouraging immigration and expanded European settlement.
‘fort victoria’ was established as the HBC headquarters on the pacific coast and James Douglas, a fur trader, was put in charge of running things. As part of his role as HBC Chief Factor, Douglas was instructed to organize the new ‘colony of vancouver island’ according to the specific requirements of the Wakefield System.
This theory of colonization was a scheme cooked up by Edward Gibbon Wakefield, who implemented it in ‘australia’ and ‘new zealand’. Douglas supported free land grants to settlers, to encourage European immigration (as was the practice south of the colonial border in the ‘oregon territory’). But the British Crown was sold on Wakefield’s view that by combining colonialism and capitalism, societies could more readily be deliberately engineered in ways that would maintain British class hierarchies — by upholding a land-owning class (of upper class elites) and a laborer-class that would need to work to maintain access to land. This system was deliberately designed to give rich people control and push poor people out.
- “The object…should be…to transfer to the new country whatever is most valuable and most approved in the institutions of the old, so that Society may, as far as possible, consist of the same classes, united together by the same ties…such conditions for the…disposal of lands…will have the effect…of preventing the ingress of squatters, paupers and land Speculators.” [emphasis added]
(Archibald Barclay, in a letter to James Douglas dated December 17, 1849. Cited at https://beaconhillparkhistory.org/contents/chapter3.htm as coming from Bowsfield, Hartwell, ed. Fort Victoria Letters, 1846-1851. Hudson’s Bay Record Society, Volume XXXII, Winnipeg, 1979, p. lii-liii)
foundational fraud: the douglas treaties
The Royal Proclamation of 1763, issued by King George III, set out terms for British claim of ‘ownership’ over Turtle Island. Under this proclamation British settlers were prohibited from individually taking Indigenous lands, that was a right reserved for agents of the British empire. British annexation of Indigenous territories would only be considered valid if accomplished through purchase or surrender, and any lands not ceded or sold to the Crown would remain Indigenous lands. There is much that could be said about the complexities of this and what it set up for violence to be used to coerce Indigenous people into ceding lands, but for this post the point is that the British Crown had rules that Douglas in his role as Crown agent had to abide by.
Consistent with the Royal Proclamation, in 1849 Douglas wrote a letter to the Crown encouraging purchase agreements with Indigenous people on the island. The most generous interpretation is that he believed it was fair to pay Indigenous people for their land, a position consistent with European views of land as a non-relational commodity. However Douglas also identified that this purchase should also be undertaken “from a regard to the future peace of the Colony”. This pragmatic recommendation reflects the initial small numbers of colonists — estimated at 500 individuals across the island in 1850, compared to 30,000 Indigenous people — and therefore the vulnerability of the colony if Douglas simply sought to use force.
In December 1849, the Crown authorized Douglas to act as its agent and enter into purchase agreements intended to extinguish Indigenous title. From 1850 to 1854, Douglas subsequently made 14 deceptive and fraudulent treaties with Indigenous people living around what is now colonially called ‘victoria’, ‘nanaimo’, and ‘fort rupert’. Agreements with six Lkwungen family groups made in April 1850 were the first of these so-called treaties. MEEGAN was included in the area set out in the agreement with what Douglas called the “Swenghwung Tribe“.
The process used by Douglas was highly unethical. It is widely acknowledged that these agreements were not made in a fair or transparent way, with the terms attached by Douglas after Indigenous people marked “X” on a blank sheet.
These terms state that all lands not enclosed as village site (reservations) would become “the entire property of the white people forever”. But Lkwungen and W̱SÁNEĆ people who witnessed the process or whose ancestors were present have said they understood these documents as a commitment to peacefully co-exist. Blankets given by Douglas as “payment” for land sale (in British terms) were perceived by Indigenous people as an initial gift to confirm intention of good relations and to thank Indigenous people for allowing settlers to temporarily use Indigenous lands to grow food for the (at that time small) colonial settlement. This is very different than selling land.
According to the Times Colonist, in 1934 Songhees Chief David Latass emphatically told the Victoria Daily Times: “This land is ours…Never, never did the Indians sign away title to their land for just a few blankets”. The Raven’s Eye reported Songhees Chief Robert Sam reaffirming this in a welcome to Indigenous relations from other nations on May 25, 2000: “This land, we did not forfeit to anyone. A treaty was signed for 147 Hudson’s Bay blankets for borrowing this land. The blankets that were shared with the Lekwammen Nation have long since disintegrated. We have never sold our land.”
SWINDLING MEEGAN FOR PRIVATE PROFIT
As part of his theory of colonization, Wakefield saw sale of stolen Indigenous land as a way to finance collective settler infrastructure — roads, bridges, schools, etc. — which would then attract more settlers. Accordingly, the land desired for the new colony here was divvied up into two categories: parcels to be sold to individuals and parcels to be set aside for government use. The HBC was to use 90% of the money from privatization of land to build and expand settler infrastructure; the other 10% of the land sales money would be profit for the HBC.
Land parcels were supposed to be divided up with a specific formula: for every 8 square miles of land sold to private buyers, one square mile was to be reserved for “public purposes” including churches, schools, and parks. To achieve this the land was to be surveyed so it could be parceled out in the right proportion. But as an agent for the HBC and British Crown, Douglas had the authority to divide up land around ‘fort victoria’ himself.
Before the official surveyor arrived, Douglas had already set out plots for himself and other HBC employees, thwarting the British plan to have elite “gentlemen” landowners and instead setting up HBC workers as the founding members of the city and of the colonial government. In June 1851 James Douglas replaced Richard Blanshard as Governor of ‘vancouver island’, further consolidating his power.
Magically, the 300 acres Douglas had purchased in 1850 along the east edge of MEEGAN expanded to 418 acres by August 1852. This included Douglas folding some of the land that was to be set aside as public park into his own adjacent fiefdom.
establishment of meegan as an official park
In 1858, having already taken what he wanted, governor Douglas gave the order for the establishment of a reserve for a public park. But the HBC claimed that the park and other areas legally belonged to the company, and began selling lots including parts of the original park area.
In the subsequent dispute, settler control of MEEGAN bounced around from the Crown to the city of ‘victoria’, then back to the Colonial Legislative Council, then back to the city again. The Public Parks Act of 1876 was amended in 1881 to empower the City to make bylaws and form a Park Committee, and in February 1882 the park was granted by the Crown in trust to the City.
IN COLONIALISM WE TRUST
At meetings with City staff they keep bringing up a special “trust” that governs MEEGAN, stating that means it’s not a regular park so can’t have things in it that people might need for their survival. “Trust” is a pretty ironic word given the ways that colonial governments violate trust time and time again through making and breaking agreements.
So, what is this very special land trust that makes it impossible for the City to respect homeless people’s need to have a safe place to live? Oh wait! Turns out this is not a special arrangement at all. It’s just a standard colonial garbage document affirming settlers stealing sxʷeŋxʷəŋ (Swenghung) family lands as part of carving up Lkwungen territory to fit European theories of how to accomplish maximum colonial power. No big reveal to be had, just identification that the Lieutenant Governor in Council designated MEEGAN as land granted to the municipality “for the use recreation and enjoyment of the public under the provisions of the Public Parks Act 1876”.
Debate about what was acceptable under this trust arrangement went to the Supreme Court of ‘bc’, over a dispute about the City transferring 20 acres to the an agricultural organization to build an exhibition hall. In Anderson v. Corporation of the City of Victoria, Judge Matthew Begbie ruled in 1884, that the building was not an acceptable use because it did not constitute public recreational use and enjoyment, but stating that a cricket green, lawn bowling facilities, and horse racing track were acceptable. Begbie further stated that the park should not in future include a university, sanatorium, barracks for soldiers, “lunatic asylum”, or cemetery. Good thing unhoused people sheltering in the park aren’t asking for any of these things.
[Note: Judge Begbie was bc’s first chief justice. He sentenced six Tsilhqot’in Chiefs to death in 1864 to terrorize and threaten all Indigenous people attempting to defend their land. His statue and name have in recent years been removed from multiple public institutions as an acknowledgment of the harm and violence he caused to Indigenous people.]
Even if you really truly believe that an 1884 ruling by a genocidal judge who thinks British recreation is the only kind that should be respected has any ethical or moral validity, there’s nothing in the trust arrangement that inherently makes it impossible for the City to allow people to shelter in the park…unless you consider people who are homeless to not be part of the public, or to inherently ruin wealthy people’s enjoyment. Aha, now we’re getting somewhere!