SUNSHINE COAST FIRST NATIONS:
FIRST PEOPLES OF THE COAST
Not many people know today that the Sechelt First Nation was the first aboriginal community to achieve self-government in Canada, back in 1986. It was a stunning first, led by a peoples who emerged from a dark past brought to their lands by the non-aboriginal settlers and particularly, the Catholic Church in the form of missionaries (see below for the history). The totem that stands outside the Ravens Cry Theatre, Tems Swiya Museum (604-885-6012). and Tsain-ko Gift Shop commemorates the date and a ceremony attended by dignitaries of the shishalh, the municipal and regional government, provincial government and Federal Government of Canada. All who attended - including myself, then working for The Press Newspaper in Sechelt - felt how pivotal this date would be for the Sechelt First Nation.
Since achieving self-government the shishalh, or Sechelt Indian Band, has gone on to become one of the most successful bands in the province of BC. Their economic interests include the Tsain-ko Village Shopping Centre, the Ravens Cry Cultural Complex, shishalh tl'e enak-awxw (Feast House or 'longhouse'), ownership in the Lehigh aggregate extraction mine, and lease land along the Sechelt, Selma Park and Mission Point waterfronts - all revenue-producing land with free-owned homes on site. There is a Marine Use Plan under development to go with the completed Strategic Land Use Plan.
Entrepreneurially-minded members of the SIB have also initiated a number of successful businesses, such as Talaysay Tours Kayaking and Cultural Adventures, offering kayak rentals and tours during the shoulder and peak season, and snowshoe tours in the winter - both with a cultural bent that underscores explorations of the area; Salish Soils has fast become a success story coming out of the Sechelt First Nations and combines composting of approximately 4000 tons of organic materials per year into soil, and then taking it one step further in the creation of community gardens run by the shishalh and producing enough food for their own needs as well as contributing fresh food to the Sechelt Food Bank.
Today the Sechelt people are thriving and in control of their own destiny. There is a drive to rekindle the She shashishalhem language (Sechelt Language) among the younger members of the band, and efforts towards closure surrounding the effects of the residential school system in the region continue to advance.
SHISHALH HISTORY AT COLONIZATION
The Sechelt area was originally occupied by natives of the Coast Salish nation, specifically the shishalh (in the Sechelt language) tribe, from which the town of Sechelt took its name. Much of their settlement was concentrated in the protected inland areas along the Sechelt Inlet where natural food and fresh water were abundant. The shishalh enjoyed a thriving community, rich in culture and family tradition. Their first contact with white settlers, likely the Catholic missionary Father Paul Durieu, was not an agreeable one. One of the first European innovations to alter the shishalh's traditional way of life was smallpox. In 1862, a severe epidemic took the lives of over 90% of the Coast's Native population.
Many of the survivors considered this plague a punishment from the spirit world, in some way connected to the powerful medicine of the black-robed missionaries. One of the largest mass conversions in history took place right after this epidemic, perhaps as a desperate attempt to placate the hostile forces that had brought on the illness. Father Durieu "successfully" confirmed into the Catholic faith every surviving member of the shishalh tribe.
Shortly afterwards, he began the controversial residential school system, choosing the area known to the Natives as Chateleech as the site for the first school. By shishalh standards, it was a generally inhospitable spot for year-round living due to its open exposure to both weather and attack, and the lack of fresh water. Despite this, St. Augustine's Residential School was officially opened on June 29, 1904, on the present day site of the House of Chiefs in Sechelt. Rigid discipline was enforced. Children were not allowed to speak their native language, even to their parents, who were forced to learn English to communicate with their own children. Students could not live at home even if they lived within sight of the school. Parental visits were limited to one or two hours a week and were supervised by hovering nuns. The School burned to the ground in 1917, and classes were held in temporary quarters until it was rebuilt in 1922. It continued to play a major role in shishalh history until the 1960's.
Native culture was strictly suppressed by the theocratic regime of Durieu and his priests. His converts were forced to burn centuries-old totem poles and other "paraphernalia of the medicine men" and to abandon their potlatches, dancing and winter festivities. Durieu instead began an all-Native brass band and travelling theatre troupe and encouraged such non-traditional economic pursuits as logging and commercial-scale hunting and fishing.
The population (and the morale) of the shishalh continued to decline under the influences of the church. An official 1881 census showed only 167 band members left of the original body of 5000. Only a sad remnant remained of what was once referred to as "one big smoke" extending from Gower Point to Saltery Bay. Most of the repertoire of songs, dances, stories and art have been lost. Only in the recent past has this trend begun to be reversed with the push by present-day Band members to reclaim their lost heritage and a measure of the pride they once had in their unique culture.
The Coast Salish inhabit the coastal regions of British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest. Within the Coast Salish, there are approximately 20 nations, all with their own individual language and culture. The Sliammon at the northern tip of the Sunshine Coast are one of these peoples.
Sliammon is located 160 km north of Vancouver and 12 km north of Powell River. The community is situated at the gateway to beautiful Desolation Sound Marine Park, the Copeland Islands and the myriad of inlets, bays, river estuaries and sheltered coves of the northern part of the Strait of Georgia.
The Nation's Traditional Territory extends from the vicinity of Stillwater and Texada Island northward along Malaspina and Gilford Peninsula to the southern area of Homfray Channel and part of Cortes Island.
Today there are approximately 860 Sliammon band members. Before the contact with the European settlers, the band was about 20,000 people strong. Dinner fires illuminated the sky from Sarah Point in the north to Saltery Bay in the south. The Sliammon people inhabited more than 10 permanent villages and numerous seasonal camp sites throughout the territory. Some of the high-ranking families kept houses, built out of giant red cedar, at more than one village site. Seasonal village sites were inhabited based on the availability of natural resources like fish, berries and roots.
The current land base of the Sliammon people was established in the 1880's as part of the undertaking of the Indian Reserve Commission. As many British Columbia First Nations, Sliammon is in the process of negotiating a final treaty with provincial and federal governments.
Archaeological sites are protected by law in British Columbia. If you see a site being disturbed, notify the local RCMP or the Archaeology Branch immediately.
- Sliammon First Nation
- Sechelt First Nation
- Sliammon Treaty Society
- Archival images, Sechelt First Nations
- First Nations Language Map, shishalh, She shashishalhem
- First Nations Language Map, Sliammon, Éy7é7juuthem
- Harbour Publishing's excellent series of books on the Sechelt Nation