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Land Awards Spotlight Indigenous Heroes and Projects

Accolades for First Nations leaders and initiatives at this year’s Real Estate Foundation of BC gala.

Tyee Staff 24 Jun 2024The Tyee

Xtli’li’ye Lydia Hwitsum was named Land Champion and Sulatiye’ Maiya Modeste chosen Emerging Leader at the Real Estate Foundation of BC’s 2024 Land Awards Gala, a celebration of projects and people that protect lands and waters and create sustainable, inclusive and resilient communities.

As winners in seven categories were announced and recipients came to the microphone to speak, an upbeat audience of almost 250 warmed to recurrent themes: responsible stewardship of the land, decolonization and land back to First Nations.

Go beyond “reconciliation” urged one Indigenous language revitalizer when explaining the purpose of her W̱SÁNEĆ team’s project in the Gulf Islands. Engage in “Reconcili-Action.”

Real Estate Foundation of BC CEO Mark Gifford in his opening remarks noted that the gala was taking place during the month of the salmonberry moon, according to several Indigenous calendars. The foundation considers the salmonberry blossom “a symbol of our work,” he said, because it represents “our sweet and sour qualities and the hopes for generations to come.”

The foundation is a grant-making philanthropic organization established by the B.C. government in 1985. Its website states that “colonization of what are now known as British Columbia and Canada is built on the genocide of Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous Peoples’ connection to their lands, waters, languages, cultures, spirituality and human rights has been systematically stripped and denied.”

The foundation’s mission, Gifford told attendees, is to redress injustices and support “leadership and projects making a difference in our communities.”

In different ways, the individuals and groups honoured fit those criteria. With something in common. This year, all were led by or heavily involved members of First Nations. Here are the winners and finalists:

Land Champion Award: Xtli’li’ye Lydia Hwitsum

Lydia Hwitsum won for her long-time advocacy for Indigenous and human rights, locally and beyond. Known for a joyous spirit on full display as she accepted her award, Hwitsum said she sensed a positive shift in the province producing “all the good work” done by people who never expect awards for their efforts.

Hwitsum said her late mother faced discrimination but always assured her “you’ve got a voice” and that now she “could not be more empowered and inspired to stand up and speak up against colonialism that has hurt our people so much.”

Hwitsum is from the Quw’utsun Nation and served 10 years as Elected Chief of the Cowichan Tribes on Vancouver Island. She co-chairs the BC-First Nations Water Table, is co-commissioner of the First Nations Water Caucus, a member of the Watershed Security Fund Joint Executive, a BC Treaty Commission commissioner, and a director for the BC First Nations Justice Council.

She has co-chaired the Cowichan Watershed Board and sat on the Indigenous Leaders Advisory Circle for the Healthy Watersheds Initiative.

“Respected across sectors and around B.C., Lydia is a bridge builder, a visionary, and a true land and water champion,” gala emcee Angela Sterritt Lu Algaxit Ts’im Xsblist told the crowd.

Emerging Leader Award: Sulatiye’ Maiya Modeste

“Throughout my life I’ve felt that colonization had severed a lot of our relationships with the land and I felt that a lot of things had been stolen from me before I was even born,” said Maiya Modeste in a video playing as she received recognition for her work with the Stqeeye’ Learning Society. “One of the most empowering things for me about this work is the realization that that connection has always and will always be there. As Indigenous people, we are people of the land.”

Modeste is the P’hwulhp (Garry Oak) Restoration Project co-ordinator for Stqeeye’ and is passionate bout reviving once-thriving Indigenous food systems. She teaches Indigenous youth about traditional foods, such as speenhw (camas), and hopes to feed Elders traditional meals. She sits on the board of directors for the Quw’utsun’ Cultural Connections Society.

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Emerging Leader honouree Sulatiye’ Maiya Modeste said the memory of her late great grandfather reminds her that her work is ‘about our future generations.’ Photo by Sarah Race.

Modeste recalled her late great grandfather saying, “‘We work together with one mind and one heart.’ He knew the way forward and that’s the way forward. So when I see other youth and other people working towards the same goal, it helps propel me forward. It helps keep me going and it’s a reminder that this isn’t only about me. This is also about our future generations.”

Land Use and Conservation Award: W̱SÁNEĆ School Board
For ṮEṮÁĆES Revitalization Project

When SENĆOŦEN language champion SX̱EDŦELISIYE Renee Sampson and members of the W̱SÁNEĆ Nation encouraged Gulf Islanders to engage in “Reconcili-Action” they received positive responses. Some people attended language classes taught by W̱SÁNEĆ youth, helped affix Indigenous place names in their neighbourhoods, opened their houses for cross-cultural gatherings, and planted species indigenous to the land and woven into W̱SÁNEĆ collective memory.

As a tool to foster such engagement — and teach students at the tribal school — the school board created four films featuring Elders. This was part of a broader ṮEṮÁĆES Revitalization Project supporting the reconnection of W̱SÁNEĆ people with their homelands in the southernmost Gulf Islands. These islands are known as ṮEṮÁĆES — meaning “Relatives of the Deep” — in the SENĆOŦEN language. Project partners include the W̱SÁNEĆ Leadership Council, Southern Gulf Islands Community Resources Centre, South Pender Historical Society, University of Victoria Living Lab Project and Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

Finalists for the Land Use and Conservation Award were: Líl̓wat Forestry Ventures for Q̓welq̓welústen/Mount Meager Landslide Restoration; Nadleh Whut’en First Nation, Stellat’en First Nation and Society for Ecosystem Restoration in Northern BC for Yun Ghunli (Defenders of the Land), and Nature-Based Solutions Foundation for IPCA conservation financing for endangered ecosystems.

Fresh Water Award: Comox Valley Project Watershed Society
For Kus-kus-sum: Unpave Paradise

What was industrial blight has been transformed into paradise unpaved, thanks to the Comox Valley Project Watershed Society, in partnership with the K’ómoks First Nation and City of Courtenay. Tapping 350 local volunteers, Project Watershed ripped out steel and concrete to restore a tidal marsh. The effort is well along and once complete, the property will be returned to the K’ómoks and protected by a conservation covenant. The First Nation gave the name Kus-kus-sum (meaning “slippery” in Ayajuthem) to the site in remembrance of an ancient village. To be part of such a sweeping transformation “is a privilege” said Courtenay Mayor Bob Wells.

Finalists for the Fresh Water Award were: Kingfisher Interpretive Centre Society for conservation through education; Living Lakes Canada for Columbia Basin water monitoring framework; Nature Trust of BC for Enhancing Estuary Resilience: An Innovative Approach to Sustaining Fish and Fish Habitat in a Changing Climate; Watershed Watch Salmon Society for Connected Waters: Working Together for a Resilient Floodplain.

Built Environment Award: NUQO Modular and Squamish Nation
For Esḵéḵxwi7ch tl’a Sp’áḵw’us Place

“We have a huge vision of housing all our members within a generation,” said Christine Baker, general manager with the Squamish Nation, which teamed with NUQO Modular to build Esḵéḵxwi7ch tl’a Sp’áḵw’us, which means “Gathering Place of the Eagles.” The 27-unit supportive housing development at Siyich’em near the Squamish River is a key step toward the Squamish reaching their goal goal.

As NUQO Modular president and CEO Rory Richards explained, the complex was built quickly using sustainable construction methods. Richards, who is of Shíshálh descent, praised the Squamish people for showing “solidarity” in hiring her Indigenous, female-led firm, given persistent barriers in the building industry. She challenged those trying to make inroads to “lay the foundation of their own healing” and “hold each other up.”

Esḵéḵxwi7ch tl’a Sp’áḵw’us prioritizes accessibility, and provides affordable rental homes to Squamish Nation members — particularly vulnerable women and children. Managed by Hiy̓ám̓ Housing, it’s energy efficient and its construction provided jobs and training to members of the nation.

Finalists for the Built Environment Award were: BC Transit for Victoria handyDART Centre; Climate Caucus for Managing Natural Assets: Handbook for Local Governments; Kambo Energy Group for Empower Me; Pembina Institute, BC Non-Profit Housing Association, City of Vancouver and Metro Vancouver Housing Corp. for Reframed Initiative and Lab.

Food Sovereignty Award: Nawalakw
For Nawalakw Community Farm

Nawalakw is a social venture that creates presence and environmental stewardship in Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw territory — while reinvigorating the language and culture. Its name means “supernatural” in Kwak̓wala. The Nawalakw Food Security Program aims to empower Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw communities through access and control over healthy foods based on their cultural values. The Nawalakw garden — located on ’Namgis land in remote Alert Bay — feeds Elders, provides seasonal jobs for youth, and serves as a place of training, mentorship and healing.

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‘I would like to thank the seeds,’ said Nawalakw food security co-ordinator Edwina Rufus, who helps lead an Alert Bay project that grows and distributes healthy, culturally rooted food to Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw. Photo by Sarah Race.

When it came time for Nawalakw food security co-ordinator Edwina Rufus, who helps run the garden, to say a few words, she spoke of how tending plants and soil had lifted her from difficult times and she has seen it work a similar effect on young people who share the work. “I would like to thank the seeds,” she said to loud applause.

Finalists for the Food Sovereignty Award were: Rivershed Society of BC for sc̓e:ɬxʷəy̓əm/Salmon River Foodlands Corridor Restoration Program; Salish Sea Regenerative Farm Society for Salish Sea Regenerative Farm.

Real Estate Award: Musqueam Indian Band and Musqueam Capital Corp.
For lelǝḿ

At the entrance to the University of British Columbia lie 21-acres of Musqueam-owned land that were formerly zoned to be a car-dependent subdivision. Instead the Musqueam are developing a place called “home” — lelǝḿ in their hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ language — with a far different feel.

lelǝḿ is a master-planned development where people live and work, its design informed by engagement with Musqueam members and area residents. lelǝḿ features market and non-market housing, a community centre, daycare, wetland and forest paths, and integrates Musqueam art and culture as well as district energy and rainwater gardens.

Finalists for the Real Estate Award were: BC Northern Real Estate Board for Water and Land Sustainability Issues webinar series; Greater Vancouver Realtors for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion campaign; Real Estate Institute of BC for Advancing Excellence Initiative.

The 2024 Land Awards Gala took place on June 13 in Vancouver.

The night’s ceremonies were expertly emceed by Sterritt, a journalist and author of the bestselling memoir Unbroken. Each person or group who Sterritt invited to accept their prize was graced with a poem by author of Crushed Wild Mint ’Cúagilákv Jess Housty that was inspired by their lives and work.

Each winner also received a panel from a multi-part painting by Heiltsuk artist K.C. Hall. UBC lecturer and Musqueam member Marny Point welcomed attendees at the start of the night. Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy George Heyman made brief remarks underscoring the B.C. government’s commitment to implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People in the province.

Nominations for project awards were judged by committees composed of community leaders and subject-matter experts. To evaluate projects, judges considered innovation, impact, collaboration and engagement; sustainability, equity and social justice; Indigenous self-determination and reconciliation; and climate mitigation and adaptation.

The winners of the individual awards were selected by a panel of past chairs of REFBC’s Board of Governors.

The Tyee is pleased to be the media partner for the 2024 Land Awards and will be publishing profiles of all the winners in the days to come.  [Tyee]

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