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Indigenous non-profit buying land near site of former First Nation village on Salt Spring Island

November 29, 2023

Stqeeye’ Learning Society aims to use Xwaaqw’um Valley property for education, harvesting, cultural rites

Three First Nations people stand in a filed, pointing and looking at a mountain in the distance. There are trees beside them.
The Stqeeye’ Learning Society is buying a parcel of land on Salt Spring Island near where the Quw’utsun (Cowichan) village called Xwaaqw’um once stood. Many members of the society are descendants of people who used to live in the village. (Alex Harris/Stqeeye’ Learning Society)

CBC Indigenous: Posted: Nov 29, 2023 4:37 PM EST | Last Updated: November 30

A 10-acre (four-hectare) parcel of land on one of B.C.’s Southern Gulf Islands will soon become property of an Indigenous-led non-profit society.

The land on Salt Spring Island is near where the Quw’utsun (Cowichan) village of Xwaaqw’um (HWAA-kwum) once stood. The Quw’utsun have traditional territory stretching from Vancouver Island across the Salish Sea to the mainland. 

The current owners are selling to the Stqeeye’ Learning Society, which runs a land-based learning program for local Indigenous youth and is also working to restore both a nearby wetland and a Garry oak ecosystem.  The society, which will take ownership of the land in the Xwaaqw’um Valley on Dec. 1, currently operates in nearby Burgoyne Bay Provincial Park. 

Maiya Modeste, a project co-ordinator with the society whose traditional name is Sulatiye’, said the new land will allow Stqeeye’ to continue its work without the bureaucracy of working within the parks system.

A map shows that two islands are sepereated by only a small band of water.
The Xwaaqw’um village site on Salt Spring Island, is just a few kilometres away from Quw’utsun (Cowichan) territory on Vancouver Island. People would have easily travelled between village sites on the two islands. (Google Maps )

In the Hul’qumi’num language, Xwaaqw’um, which was a rich site for food, means “place of the female merganser duck.” 

Modeste hopes the land will be a place for hunting and harvesting, and where cultural rites can be practised in private, as well as a place for land-based learning. She says the project is a long-time dream of her grandfather, who recently passed away.

Her grandfather’s great-grandfather was a chief of the village and left land to his daughter — but when she married a non-Indigenous man, she lost her First Nations status under the Indian Act and could not hold the land, Modeste said.  Modeste said it was around that time that settlers took the land. 

Nine young people dig and work in a plot of land, with a mountain in the distance.
Rachel Bevington, who runs the wetland restoration project with the Stqeeye’ Learning Society, said by hiring and training Indigenous youth they are building land stewards for the future. (Alex Harris/Stqeeye’ Learning Society)

The opportunity to buy the lot was perfect, Modeste says.  She said the owners approached the society because they wanted to sell to someone who cared about the land as much as they did. 

“So it feels really, really amazing the way that it’s all happened,” said Modeste. “I think it’s my life’s work now to fulfil [my grandfather’s] legacy and his dream, and everything he and my grandma have taught me throughout these years were preparing me for this moment.”

Restoring wetlands, creating land stewards

Rachel Bevington, a restoration biologist with the society, is leading a project to rebuild 20 acres of wetlands near the former village, where logging and agriculture have damaged the landscape.  She says restoration projects funded through grants have allowed the society to offer full-time employment to 13 people, 11 of whom are Indigenous. 

“That is something that we’re really proud of. We are creating the stewards of the land for the future,” said Bevington.

The wetlands also act as carbon sinks. The restoration projects will expand onto the newly purchased property.  The society is working to raise $2 million to pay for the land, and to expand its work there.


  • A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the land being acquired by the Stqeeye’ Learning Society includes the former site of Xwaaqw’um village. In fact, the land does not include the former village site, but is located in the Xwaaqw’um Valley adjacent to Burgoyne Bay Provincial Park. The story has also been updated to clarify that the Stqeeye’ land-based learning program is run independently from the local school district. The name of Modeste’s grandfather has been removed from the story to align with cultural grieving protocol.Nov 30, 2023 3:20 PM PT

Kathryn Marlow · CBC News