A century ago, Robert Butchart’s cement works used the inlet as a dump; help is finally on the way.
TWO YEARS AGO, Alice Meyers had just arrived in Victoria to complete research for a PhD focusing on revitalization of the Sencoten language. On advice from Judith Arney, ethnoecologist for SeaChange Marine Conservation Society, she went out on a rainy Saturday and got drenched to the bone, working to remove invasive plants from the shores of an emerald inlet in Saanich. She lights up at the memory of sloshing around in the mud and the cold. “It was the best time,” she tells me. “It was like having a hazing from nature!”
SṈIDȻEȽ (pronounced sneed-kwith), or Tod Inlet, forms the upper reaches of Saanich Inlet and is part of Gowlland Tod Provincial Park. SṈIDȻEȽ is the area’s WSÁNEĆ (Saanich First Nation) name, and means “place of the blue grouse.” After that first visit, Meyers quickly became a regular in the park, removing blackberry and ivy in all weather and occasionally rewarding herself by planting native species. Working alongside volunteers from the Garth Homer Society and SeaChange, she developed a deep and sustaining relationship with the history-laden land. Now, her work has become one part of a significant ecological restoration project currently underway.
Alice Meyers (l) and Nikki Wright at Tod Inlet. (Photo by Tony Bounsall)
There’s an undeniable feeling upon arriving at the protected upper reaches of SṈIDȻEȽ—a ghostly sense of loss and palpable history, layered over one of the most beautiful watersheds in the South Island. Emerald Douglas-fir, cedar and spruce blanket the inlet’s steep surrounding Partridge Hills. Tod Creek, in late winter, runs thick and fast as a mountain river, and joins the bay at its southernmost reach. The inlet itself gleams. Deep, still and protected from wind and tides, it warms to swimming temperature in summer and is a destination for those who enjoy trilliums and rattlesnake plantain orchids in spring, or carpets of maple leaves in fall. But the water’s glossy surface hides a complex past that many are now trying to rectify.
“This is a magical watershed,” agrees Nikki Wright, the executive director of SeaChange. Tides in SṈIDȻEȽ empty and change completely only once per year, helping to create the feeling of a place unhinged from time.
But the inlet’s recent history also contributes to a feeling of loss. SṈIDȻEȽ was the place of creation of the first human, according to WSÁNEĆ oral literature. WSÁNEĆ peoples lived there until 1904, when, travelling back from their summer harvesting grounds, they found their winter village had been replaced by a cement quarry and pier, built by Robert Butchart’s Vancouver Portland Cement Company.
The factory, using workers from China and India who lived in insubstantial shacks near the inlet’s head, operated until 1913. Typhus and tuberculosis were common. The park’s soil still yields artifacts of Chinese pottery, metal and glass. As Meyers notes, it’s both a gorgeous place and an amazing, sad story. The cement plant was only operating for nine years, but “100 years later we’re still cleaning up the mess.”
Meyers, through SeaChange, has been involved primarily in the organization’s terrestrial restoration projects. But this year her work dovetailed with an ambitious foreshore restoration project. It’s one that everyone hopes will continue (pending funding) until the inlet’s ecosystem biodiversity is restored.
When I visit with Wright, markers in the bay indicate underwater debris—concrete, sunken vessels and other navigational hazards—slated for pick-up by SeaChange in the coming weeks. The debris, left over from the cement factory’s tenure, provides an ideal surface for jellyfish polyps to grow, which eventually mature into moon jellyfish. Though a native species, overpopulation of these creatures, which feed on plankton, causes a trophic cascade in the ecosystem: Less plankton means less small fish, which in turn means fewer salmon. Though the inlet looks rich in wildlife, the ocean bottom is a moonscape low on biodiversity. Little life can survive the leachate from the former factory’s contamination of land and water.
Jennie Butchart began her family’s gardens in the abandoned excavated limestone quarries after the cement factory’s closure, but SṈIDȻEȽ wasn’t acquired by BC Parks until 1995, during the NDP’s last push for parkland acquisition. Restoration of the terrestrial portions began soon after, including removal and burning of invasive species and plantings of acres of native species right up to the water’s edge by volunteers from around the region.
“You develop a familial relationship with the plants,” Meyers says of the native species she’s added. Many of the plantings are tucked beside the remains of cement house foundations left over from factory housing and cottages that dotted the inlet in the decades after the factory’s closure (terrestrial cement remains aren’t as ecologically damaging as those in the inlet itself).
On February 10 of this year, SeaChange arrived to haul concrete, contaminated soil, and abandoned bricks off the foreshore, piling it further inland at the park’s northern edge. The beach was then levelled out to a gradual slope and covered with gravel and sand, which will soften into an erosion-resistant shore. The soft shore provides protection against rising sea levels and creates an ideal habitat for marine life in the inlet. Wright said that less than a week after the restoration project was completed, she came down for BC Family Day, happy to see children playing in clean sand and families enjoying the beach’s gentle slope.
Shoreline restoration funding for SeaChange’s project was provided in part by the Recreational Fisheries Conservation Partnerships Program (Fisheries and Oceans Canada) and by the Pacific Salmon Foundation. SeaChange partnered with the Tsartlip First Nation and BC Parks to complete the work. Tsartlip, Tsawout and Tseycum First Nations have all expressed support for the project.
“The whole intent of our work is to bring it back to some semblance of health for First Nations,” explains Wright. Her hope is that management can eventually be shared or even pass from BC Parks to the Tsartlip First Nation, allowing the original inhabitants to take responsibility for and shape the future of their former village.
Wright hopes BC Parks will agree to cap and cover the debris left on the shore, as trying to remove all of the contaminated material in SṈIDȻEȽ would be a monumental task, and one that would likely involve disturbing the returning Douglas-fir and other streamside ecosystems.
Eventually, SeaChange’s goal is to restore much of the foreshore around the wharf, as well as to cap and cover the inlet’s sea floor, so that marine life can return. Stories abound of historical herring, oolichan, and salmon fisheries in the inlet, with abundant shellfish beds. The intertidal zone below these cliffs is currently littered with old bricks, concrete, metals, and potentially contaminated sand.
“It’s a disgrace,” sighs Wright, “but what do you do with all that anger? You act.”
For Meyers as well, who has returned to work at SṈIDȻEȽ time and time again, ecological restoration has become a way to connect with nature and history, to enjoy a sense of community, and to give back to the WSÁNEĆ Nation from whom she’s learning. “You can see that the land has absorbed this love,” says Meyers. “I feel a deep connection now that I’ve been out there for so many hours.”
While visiting SṈIDȻEȽ, Wright brainstorms with my friend’s children on how to build an outdoor amphitheatre with some nearby abandoned stacks of concrete pilings. In half a minute they’ve come up with a new solution that won’t involve cutting any trees and could provide an ideal setting for sylvan performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. If the dreams and energy of Meyers, Wright and SṈIDȻEȽ’s original inhabitants keep flowing, the future may indeed be able to heal the past.
Maleea Acker is the author of Gardens Aflame: Garry Oak Meadows of BC’s South Coast (New Star, 2012). She is currently completing a PhD in Human Geography, focusing on the intersections between the social sciences and poetry.
Also see the Victoria Foundation's video on the Tod Inlet restoration project: