An intricate Coast Salish wooden gate carved by artist Charles Elliott (Temosen) welcomes visitors up the steep narrow road leading to Marion Cumming’s house in Oak Bay. Her home is filled with beautiful Indigenous artwork and books, and you can catch a glimpse of its magnificent ocean view from nearly every window in the house. Stone steps lead to an outdoor seating area that also serves as a deer lookout; if you go further, you’ll eventually see the Gonzales Hill Observatory, and Walbran Park.
In the park, a cairn was erected nearly 100 years ago; its plaque claims that Capt. John Walbran’s wife was the first woman to behold the strait of Juan De Fuca. The cairn should be removed, says Cumming, and the area restored to its rightful, pre-colonial name.
When it comes to restoring land to Indigenous stakeholders, Cumming is putting her money where her mouth is: her 100-year-old home on the hill is just the latest property she will be bequeathing to an Indigenous community, in this case the Victoria Native Friendship Centre. That’s right: while many wouldn’t give the shirt off their back, let alone give away a house, Cumming is doing just that.
Cumming was born in Toronto in 1936. From trying to stop the building of the Site C dam to protesting the construction of a pipeline on Wet’suwet’en land to attending demonstrations to protect old-growth forest in Pacheedaht territory at Fairy Creek, to sitting in at the cleanup of the steps of the legislature in honour of the residential school children, she has tried to live her life as an active, rather than a performative, ally.
All the while, she has also been returning her privately owned land to Indigenous peoples.
Together Marion and her late husband Bruce Cumming moved into their Oak Bay home in 1992, after Marion’s aunt passed away at the age of 98. They previously lived on a 280-acre farm on the edge of a river surrounded by lush trees in a place called Penniac, New Brunswick, just outside of Fredericton.
Cumming has been working to help finalize plans for this New Brunswick acreage for over three decades. Soon, she hopes that it will be in the hands of the adjacent Sitansisk Wolastoqiyik (St. Mary’s) First Nation.
Cumming studied art at the University of the Americas in Mexico for one year, before moving back to Canada when she was finished school. For a time, she worked with the Argentine embassy in Ottawa following the overthrow of dictator Juan Perón, always with a sense of social justice in mind. In her early career, she’d considered becoming a social worker after volunteering on the Mississippi River, in a poor area of St. Louis. Eventually, at her father’s insistence — he felt she needed a proper education — Cumming attended a teacher training course. She became an art teacher at a UNESCO school, which she says was “a lovely opportunity.”
In 1969, Cumming married her husband, who was also an educator. She was drawn to him because they shared so many similar views on justice. “It didn’t take us long to suddenly realize that land that we consider our farm was unceded land on the Nashwaak River,” she says.
Cumming herself didn’t realize the magnitude of the impact of colonialism on Indigenous peoples in Canada until she watched the Oka Crisis unfolding in 1990. “Sometimes a crisis, even though it can be so painful and divisive, brings people together in a good way,” she says. With the recent uncovering of unmarked graves on the sites of former residential schools in Canada — settlers are becoming aware that not only was land stolen, but children’s lives were stolen too, she says.
In April 2020, she returned the small acreage known as Qhahtumtun “House by the River” on the Koksilah River to the Victoria Native Friendship Centre, in collaboration with the Duncan House of Friendship. This rustic property has a small cabin, workshop, bunkhouse, a greenhouse, and even an old henhouse.
“We called it land return,” Cumming says. “We didn’t consider it a gift.”
Cumming notes that while Canadian governmental bodies are slowly waking up to the idea of returning land, this change is not coming fast enough. This is where private landowners and organizations come in, she says.
“I think it’s lovely what she’s doing to support and bequeath her land to the Native Friendship society,” says Oak Bay Mayor Kevin Murdoch, who also happens to be Cumming’s neighbour.
In the future, when there’s a proposal for how the land will be used, Murdoch says the proposal will then go back to council for decision. At this point, though, he says, “It’s just a good news story that is a very lovely and generous gift that she’s making.” There have been gifts of land to different causes and parks in the history of Oak Bay, Murdoch says, but this would be the first of its kind to an Indigenous organization.
Anecdotally, Murdoch says that what he’s heard so far about the bequeathment has been very positive. He adds that he looks forward to seeing what the Victoria Native Friendship Centre will do with the home once it is in their possession.
Cumming, Murdoch says, also helped the municipality construct informational cairns throughout the area in order to identify key First Nations locations and histories within Oak Bay. Bequeathing her home, he adds, “is one of just so many ways that she has contributed both to our community and to raising awareness and knowledge of First Nations.”
“Land Back” is a phrase that has been used most recently on social media platforms, one that can be loosely defined as a campaign that seeks to re-establish Indigenous peoples’ political and economic control over the lands that were their traditional territories prior to colonization.
Although the home and land on which it sits is not being returned to the Songhees Nation, whose territories it encompasses, friendship centre executive director Ron Rice says the organization will do its best to put the house to good use for the community, including considering the Cummings’ original vision of converting it to a sanctuary for artists in the form of a residency, or possibly have a live-in facilitator who could help with co-ordinating seasonal or annual activities.
Shortly after he started working at the centre three years ago, Rice got a phone call from Cumming’s executor asking him to stop by for tea to discuss the possibility of a donation. It was around that time that Cumming gave the news that she would like to bequeath her home.
In addition to the potential of an artist’s residency, the Victoria Native Friendship Centre is also considering making the home a meeting space for youth groups, writing or reading groups, or perhaps even a student housing space. Rice says that when the time comes, the centre will need to ensure they use the space for something that meets the mandate of the organization, but also adheres to the bylaws of Oak Bay,and the province’s tenancy act.
“We are happy to be trusted with the legacy of Bruce and Marion Cumming and we are confident that we will be able to put this property to work for the people,” Rice says.
Like Cumming, Rice hopes that the family’s generosity will encourage other settlers to consider pursuing their own forms of Land Back.
“A lot of the non-profit organizations that support Indigenous people in this city and all over this country are charitable organizations and can issue tax receipts,” Rice adds. “The idea of handing something over title and deed, it puts faith in the group that you are connecting with, not only in protecting your legacy but in doing good work.”
“I hope that this has inspired other people to look at some creative ways to contemplate their legacy.”