Gulf Islands National Park Reserve of Canada

First Nations Culture and Traditional Activities

Cowichan womantying bundle of reeds. Cowichan woman tying bundle of reeds
Image courtesy of Royal BC Museum, BC Archives

There are many Coast Salish First Nations who have long and continuous ties to the Gulf Islands. The Coast Salish people have special ties to the environment—a spiritual connection to the land, the earth and the water. Their knowledge of natural systems has been passed down from generation to generation through an oral tradition.

Over millennia and to this day, the forests and seas have provided them with food, materials for everyday life and places for spiritual contemplation. First Nations scientific and traditional knowledge are being used in parallel with western science to help park managers make decisions on how to restore and maintain park reserve ecosystems.

The ocean has always been their central source of food—a rich harvest of seals, sea lions, whales, six-gilled shark, porpoise, shellfish, halibut, salmon and other fish. Duck hunting, trapping, hunting deer and small mammals and the harvesting of berries and plants are done in rhythm with the seasons. First Nations can pursue traditional activities—including hunting and harvesting of plants and other materials—within the national park reserve. Parks Canada works with First Nations to ensure that these activities are done in ways that respect the conservation of species and the ecosystem, and in a manner that does not endanger the safety of other park users. Watch for the warning signboards that are placed at access points when hunting is in progress.

First Nations Cultural Heritage Sites
First Nation Village Site on a bay '' Indian'' Village
Image courtesy of Library and Archives Canada

First Nations people have resided in and used the Gulf Islands for thousands of years. We are reminded of their long-time presence by the layers of shells found at various sites throughout the park reserve. These tell us that First Nations people had villages or camped at these locations while they made use of local natural resources. Archaeologists are able to determine the type of use at a site by the amount of layered shell: larger deposits indicate a village site.

First Nations people value these sites as part of their history and as tangible evidence of their connection to the land. These sites are also meaningful to us all for the rich and complex perspective that they add to the history of the park reserve, and require our respect and protection. You can help by leaving them undisturbed and using the stairs provided to avoid walking on the face of the shell layers. Park managers are working with the Coast Salish people to develop protocols for caring for cultural objects and sites found within the park reserve.

If you see suspicious behaviour or witness desecration of any cultural site, please contact us. It is illegal to remove cultural objects from the park reserve; if you find artifacts, leave them in place, and notify park staff.

European Culture

Exploration by European peoples began with the charting of the Gulf Islands by the Spanish in the 1700s. The first major settlement of the islands did not begin, however, until the 1870s. By the end of the 19th century, most arable land in the islands had been cleared and settled, and fishing, farming and logging were the mainstays of the economy.

Taylor Point Remnants of farm house at Taylor Point on Saturna Island.
© Parks Canada / Matthew Payne 2005

The Mediterranean climate and scenic beauty of the islands soon began to attract vacationers, and resorts and marinas sprang up to serve the demand. The islands have also become popular as a retirement destination, and have come under pressure for residential and resort developments. Development on the islands, however, is controlled through the innovative Islands Trust. Created through protective legislation, the Trust's objective is to preserve and protect the Trust Area and its unique amenities and environment. In 1990, its role was enhanced and the Trust became the local government with land use and regulatory authority.

The national park reserve had its origins in the Pacific Marine Heritage Legacy—a federal-provincial agreement initiated in 1995 with the objective of enhancing the system of protected areas on the British Columbia coast. Under the auspices of this agreement, Canada's 40th national park was created on May 9, 2003.