Snuneymuxw launches planning process for Newcastle cultural centre

Chief says all local stakeholders and the province will be consulted for input.

Snuneymuxw First Nation says that within six months it will develop a comprehensive plan to develop an interpretive and cultural centre on Newcastle Island.

Chief Douglas White III, who has been a longtime supporter of a First Nation cultural centre on the mostly undeveloped island, added that Snuneymuxw is also poised to examine a “full range of alternatives” for facilitating increased access to Newcastle.

“Newcastle Island is one of our traditional village sites, and a place of great spiritual and cultural significance for the Snuneymuxw people,” said White in a release. “By embarking on this planning, Snuneymuxw is preparing for the next phase of the future of the Island, one which will see expanded opportunities for all people to learn about Snuneymuxw culture and way of life, and to enjoy the beauty of the island.”

Newcastle Island became a provincial marine park in 1961 and is currently managed by Snuneymuxw in partnership with the City of Nanaimo. In early Nanaimo history the 336-hectare park was home to a saltery, sandstone quarry, coal mine and shipyard.

Bill Merilees, spokesman for the Newcastle Island Society, a volunteer group that oversees the park’s operations, said while the society was aware that a cultural centre was on the radar, the announcement was not anticipated.

“This came as a complete surprise to everybody,” said Merilees, noting that it has been well over a year since there were any formal discussions regarding the park’s operations.

“We have tried to work with them but we just get stalled and put off and put off and then all of a sudden this thing pops out of the woodwork. Our position is we’re happy that they’re interested in doing something there but for pete’s sake, why don’t they just talk to us so we can all work together?”

Merilees said that a management plan introduced in 1995 did identify a cultural centre, but that it was understood that the centre would be part of the existing pavilion.

White said that as part of the planning process Snuneymuxw will connect with interested local stakeholders, as well as the provincial government, to seek views and input.

Nanaimo Mayor John Ruttan said he supports the idea of a cultural centre on Newcastle in principle, but there has been no recent consultation between SFN and the city.

“It’s been a work in progress for some time and we’re certainly supportive of it,” said Ruttan. “I guess Chief White is trying to gauge the interest that is out there for the project. As far as the city goes we don’t really have a role in approvals as it is a provincial park.”

During the November 2011 municipal election, local developer Jim Routledge ran on the platform of building a bridge from Nanaimo to Newcastle Island, a platform supported by White. Routledge said he fully supports the cultural centre and further development in the park.

“Quite frankly I think the development of the island is by far the most logical and appropriate (issue) to be looking at,” he said. “Access will come later in terms of demand, how to service it and how to handle it. But the question of how to develop Newcastle in a responsible, fair way is wonderful. I think Chief White has hit the nail on the head with this sort of approach.”

White said that Newcastle has been an important part of the Snuneymuxw way of life over centuries and that the band will continue to be stewards for the island.

“As we have seen in recent months, people have been discussing Newcastle in ways that reflect various perspectives and interests,” said White. “Our people have been stewards of the island for countless generations and through this planning, will be developing a roadmap for continuing the responsibilities for the island that have been passed onto us from our ancestors, and which we hold for future generations.”