The Contested History of Beacon Hill Park

Beacon Hill Park is a sprawling 183 acre park, a short walk from Victoria’s downtown core. With views across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the Olympic mountains, a rare Garry oak ecosystem, and meandering paths through camas meadows, it is considered the crowning jewel of the city’s park system. Since March 2020 it has also been the site of a protracted struggle between the city’s housed and unhoused communities, a fight which recently made it to the Supreme Court of BC.

Tents in 2021 at the Cook St. entrance to Beacon Hill Park

At the start of the COVID pandemic, shelters and social services were forced to suspended their services and an estimated 465 people were left without shelter or housing. In response, the city temporarily suspended the bylaw that prohibits overnight camping and, through a series of police enforcements, pushed people from the highly visible downtown core into Beacon Hill Park. In a never ending game of not in my backyard, the non-profit society Friends of Beacon Hill Park (FBHP) filed a lawsuit arguing that to allow overnight sheltering is a violation of the 1882 Trust which governs the park. Ignoring precedent set in Victoria (City) v. Adams, which affirms the right to shelter under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Supreme Court of BC released their decision last week agreeing with FBHP that “the Trust does not permit use of the Park for temporary sheltering by persons experiencing homelessness.”

Reading through the court’s decision, their judgement hinges on the interpretation of one particular line from the Trust — that the park must be maintained and preserved “for the use recreation and enjoyment of the public.” Essentially the terms of the debate were: does emergency sheltering count as one of the uses intended by the original authors of the Trust? In framing the debate this way, the court decided to ignore a much more interesting and telling question: who is the public, and whose use recreation and enjoyment are we maintaining and preserving? With that question in mind, I want to explore the history of Beacon Hill and place the court’s decision within a larger historical context. Because I think the story of Beacon Hill reveals a much larger story, a story about Victoria, and about Canada as a whole.

Lekwungen herring fishing camp, Esquimalt Harbour

Before Europeans arrived, Beacon Hill Park was known by a different name — MEEGAN, a Lekwungen word roughly translated as “a place to warm your belly”. The result of careful land management over countless generations, the landscape was a productive food garden and one of the continent’s most densely populated areas. To this day, the meadows are filled with the purple flowers of kwetlal (camas) - the starchy root was, and continues to be, cultivated and valued as a food source unique to the region’s rare Gary oak ecosystem. Prior to extensive dredging and blasting that started in 1873, the inner harbour was a large mudflat and one of the most productive clam gardens on the coast. To the north, the Gorge Waterway was host to abundant seasonal runs of herring and Coho salmon.

Lekwungen laws and protocol worked to maintain a lush, cultivated landscape abundant with food - as an early colonist, James Bell observed: “we are indebted to the Indians for a supply of everything in season …at very reasonable rates; They collect great quantities of Berries,…For a back load of Potatoes they charge one shilling; these they cultivate by simply burying the seed under the green turf; A fine salmon can also be purchased for one shilling; …Cod, Herrings, Flounders &c are always to be had cheap; A large Basket of Oysters one shilling; The market is also supplied with plenty of venison, Deer are quite plentiful, until the arrival of the American Hunters”

MEEGAN began to change dramatically when the entire Victoria area was “bought” from the “Swengwhung Tribe” in 1850 by James Douglas, the first Governor of the Colony of British Columbia. No money was ever exchanged in the purchase, as Douglas explains: “they were paid in goods, mostly blankets, from the Fort Victoria stores and the value to the Indians included a markup of approximately 300 percent”. With different cultural understandings of property and ownership, and negotiated through a language barrier, the Lekwengun people interpreted the treaty as a peace offering and an agreement to share the land. In 1934, Songhees Chief Davit Latass was clear that “never, never did the Indians sign away title to their land for just a few blankets.” In 2000, Songhees Chief Robert Sam reiterated that “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.”

Still, shortly after signing the treaty, MEEGAN was cleared and the Lekwungen people were forced across the harbour, to the newly established Songhees Reserve.

With little oversight from a distant colonial administration in Britain, Douglas was able to divvy up and sell the newly acquired Lekwungen lands as he saw fit. In 1850, Douglas had the property lines for Beacon Hill Park surveyed. The same year, he bought 300 acres of productive agricultural land along the park’s eastern boundary which, in 1852, was expanded to 418 acres and another 24 acre parcel on the northeast corner of the park. Douglas wasn’t secretive about his intentions, as he wrote in a letter to a friend: “I am thinking of making a purchase of land on Vancouver’s Island…more as a speculation than with any serious intentions of settling.” The colony’s surveyor, Joseph Pemberton, confirms in a letter that “it was Sir James Douglas who made us rich by insisting upon our taking up land.” It’s hard to escape the idea that, from its earliest inception, a primary function of Beacon Hill Park was to inflate nearby land values and make a few men rich.

1850s Map of early Victoria, James Douglas and Joseph Pemberton’s massive, primo lots are highlighted

To fast-forward into the present, what followed was years of gradual transformation of MEEGAN into a European style park. Burial cairns were dug up, the Indigenous bones underneath collected and displayed as curiosities in fashionable Victorian homes. Familiar plants from England, like “cowslips and primroses and hawthorn hedges and all the Englishy flowers” were planted and crowded out the native flora. As the city grew, the Songhees Reserve land became more valuable. The British Colonist published opinions wondering “how much longer are we to be inflicted with the intolerable nuisance of having hundreds upon hundreds of hideous half-naked, drunken savages in our midst?” In 1911 the reserve was moved even farther from the downtown core, to where it stands now in Esquimalt. On the forced relocation of the Lekwungen people, Douglas wrote that “the Town of Victoria will not be retarded by their unprofitable occupation of one of the most valuable portions”. Treaty rights stating that the Lekwungen could continue hunting, fishing, and food gathering forever were effectively denied and traditional land management was criminalized. The criminalization continues to this day — Songhees traditional knowledge holder, Cheryl Bryce, has shared how police have been repeatedly called on her for harvesting kwetlal at MEEGAN.

With the Indigenous presence effectively erased, or at least controlled, the enforcement of who is allowed to use the park has shifted to a new class of interloper: “squatters and paupers” or, in modern terms, the unhoused.

Left: city workers throwing people’s belongings into the garbage during evictions of Pandora Ave, May 2020. Right: city workers throwing people’s belongings into the garbage during evictions of Beacon Hill Park, November 2020

My involvement with, and interest in, MEEGAN started around March 2020 when the Province declared a state of emergency and the city shut down their shelters, suspended social services, and left people to fend for themselves. It quickly became clear that the city had no plan for how they were going to provide basic services to the hundreds of people left sheltering in the park. Into this vacuum stepped some of the most impressive and inspiring examples of mutual aid I’ve witnessed. Campers looked after each other and organized weekly meetings, a care tent was established and run by volunteers to house donations of sleeping bags, tents, first-aid, naloxone kits, and other survival supplies. With no hygiene facilities available, the community fundraised over $10,000 to build portable shower stalls.

Free workshops at the Community Care Tent and solar powered showers created by the community at the Beacon Hill Park encampment, 2020

Instead of celebrating the community’s achievements, the city gave notice that we were in violation of its bylaws. By late fall, a team of roughly thirty police and bylaw officers showed up to impound the community care tent and shower stalls. Eventually, the care tent was given a temporary permit to operate nearby, outside of the park — but the community was left without a warming tent for weeks in the middle of winter and countless donations and personal belongings were lost. Despite our insistence that “the denial of access to water and sanitation by governments constitutes cruel and inhumane treatment, and is prohibited under international human rights law,” the city provided no alternative access to showers or hygiene facilities.

Some final thoughts on why this all matters

I started this essay with the question: who is the public? I think that the history of MEEGAN makes it clear who isn’t considered the public: Indigenous people and the unhoused community. But I’d like to take it one step further and suggest that I, and likely you, are also not members of the public whose rights the courts defend.

The story of MEEGAN hints at how the public is, and always has been, land owners and the wealthy. Yet, over 60% of us in Victoria are renters. With stagnant wages, high inflation, low vacancy, and runaway housing prices — the majority of us have a lot more in common with the campers at MEEGAN than we do with homeowners fighting tooth and nail for their property values.

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