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A Hill Overlooking the Sea

Article and Photos by Christina Johnson-Dean

Once land solely occupied by the Lekwungen-speaking people (part of the larger Coast Salish) this special hill in what is now south Oak Bay has been called by various names – the rocks, Blueberry Hill, and then officially Anderson Hill, but unknown to us is what the indigenous people of the Chilcawich settlement on the bay at the foot of the hill called it. Perhaps it is time for their descendants be invited to give it a name since the area is now being restored as much as possible to what it used to be.

Before settlers came, these people cultivated various edible and medicinal plants on the hill and in the nearby oak meadows. A natural lookout, the hill is believed to have been used also as a source for rock tools. Oak acorns were ground and water collected.

When settlers came from Europe, they made arrangements to use and possess the land.

Hudson Bay fur trader and steamship Captain William Henry McNeill and wife Martha (of indigenous heritage as a Nishga Chief) had a residence, “Homestead” on McNeill or Shoal Bay, near the Chilcawich village site. Nearby in Fairfield was “Gonzales”, the home of Joseph Despard Pemberton, wife Teresa Jane (nee Grautoff) and six children. As the first Surveyor General of the Colony of Vancouver Island, he had acquired land bordering the McNeill property, including part of what is now the park.

The official name of the park, Anderson Hill, recognizes Alexander Caulfield Anderson, a Hudson Bay Company employee and later Customs Collector for the colony, Inspector of Fisheries, and as a member of the Indian Reserve Commission. His son, James Robert Anderson, was the first Deputy Minister of Agriculture and wrote Trees and Shrubs – Medicinal and Poisonous Plants of British Columbia for the Ministry of Education.

As the land was subdivided and new homes built, people landscaped with plants from around the world. The Victorian era was fascinated with the exotic as exemplified in Kew Gardens near London, England. Unfortunately, they were unaware of the value of the native plants as well as the implications – the sheer invasiveness, particularly of the gorse, ivy, blackberry, and daphne.

Indeed, many homeowners are still unaware of what might still be underfoot and are charmed by the variety of plants in our nurseries and cover their properties with botanical selections incompatible with local botanical heritage and beauty. Sometimes they seek privacy, not realizing that the little green “shrub” of laurel is actually a tree that will grow to a large size with trunks that defy easy replacement and with branches needing constant maintenance while shading out many delicate, smaller plants.

However, when the non-native plants are removed, it is stunning to see the native plants come to life.

Oak Bay Parks began efforts to clear broom in the late 1970s and 1980s. Jack Todd, whose residence was at the top of the hill, remembered the fields of wildflowers from his childhood.When Al Unwin and Ron Carter were with Oak Bay Parks at that time, Todd donated funds to Oak Bay.

Meanwhile various efforts were made by volunteers, including neighbours with properties bordering the park - Roger Colwill and Sheila Rowan (working with Roberta McCarthy). In 1993 Girl Guides of Canada’s 1st Victoria Pathfinders began removing broom under the leadership of Christina Johnson-Dean and Julie Wilson.

In 2010 Christina Johnson-Dean took over from Roberta McCarthy to coordinate volunteers with Chris Hyde-Lay of Oak Bay Parks. Along with regular Saturday morning efforts to remove broom, ivy, daphne, blackberry and any other non-native plants that have crossed over from neighbours’ gardens, we have hosted various other groups, including the Green Team of Victoria (coordinated by Amanda Evans) and students from Monterey Middle School with the enrichment option Ecokeepers and teacher Mark Brown and this year the pandemic Hybrid Class with teacher Josh Elsdon.

Along with invasive plant matter, volunteers have cleared tons of garbage which had been dumped in the park and along nearby public boulevards – garden waste, refuse from basement and garage clean-ups (including a grave marker and a silver plated creamer), holiday decorations (especially Christmas trees), a vast array of beverage containers from weekend parties, plastic dog poop bags (full), the remnants of derelict tree forts and camps with sharp nails projecting from boards, rotted sleeping bags/blankets, and plastic galore – toilet seats, broken chairs, etc.

Lack of understanding and respect for our natural habitats is not just what we dump – it’s how we and our pets enjoy these outdoor spaces. The motorists who crush the native plant by the side of the road as they park, the cyclists who set up bike jumps in the park on delicate spring gold plants, people who trample the fawn lily just sprouting under the oaks, the dog walker who tosses a ball into a field of camas, the cyclist who refuses to obey the sign to walk a bike and nearly squashes a garter snake – these all impact this very special place.

However, what is heartening is the increase of people who notice the work we are doing and thank us.

Awareness and volunteerism have increased – no longer do people question the removal of the yellow flowered broom, the holly with its multitude of underground sprouts, nor the walls of ivy that strangle the oaks and shrubs. Meanwhile each year more native plants are evident, including the blueberries of the colloquial name Blueberry Hill are thriving – Saskatoon Berry, Oregon Grape, and Indian Plum.

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