By Kerry Finley
The very first glimpse and the very last impression of Vancouver Island for millions of residents and tourists is a beautiful little lagoon, as they hurry to and from the Swartz Bay ferry terminal in North Saanich. The lagoon is obscured by an unsightly thicket of Scotch broom which – for once – has a useful purpose of maintaining the tranquility, protecting a rare intertidal plant community, and limiting disturbance of the winter resident Green-winged Teal. There is no indication that we are looking at the historical area of Wsi-ikem (or Tsehum), the original home of the Coast Salish people, and that we are also looking at one of the oldest wildlife sanctuaries on the Pacific Coast – the final stomping grounds of one of Canada’s most notorious naturalists, John Macoun.
When “Professor” John Macoun. Chief Botanist of the National Museum, retired to Sidney in 1912, he was one of the most renowned scientific figures in Canada, famous for his botanical explorations of the prairies and his dismissal of Palliser’s Triangle as an obstacle to the settlement of the prairies. He was a naturalist in the old sense, self-taught, alert to all life. He and his son, James, had just completed the first Catalog of Canadian Birds, a monumental task, but the indefatigable Professor had no intention of retiring. At age 81, his life as a free naturalist had just begun, in the paradise of W’Saanich and Wsi-i-kem (Tsehum). Within a year of his official retirement, he had collected and documented for science 247 species of fungi, 128 species of lichen, 3l species of liverworts, 700 species of flowering plants, and 195 of the known 264 species of island seaweed. In 1914, he wrote, “I mean to commence a more extensive system of field work.” and when he suffered a stroke that paralyzed his right arm, he taught himself to write with his left hand and continued to document the local flora of the Saanich peninsula.
In his last correspondence, dated 28 June 1920, to Dr. Newcombe, curator of the provincial museum, Macoun thanks him for sending two specimens of Godetias, and in his last nature column for the Sidney and Islands Review (June 25, 1920), written under his nom de plume “The Rambler”, he credits Dr. Newcombe for Godetia caurina (Wild Godetia),#259 on his growing list of the Wild Flowers of Saanich. Ever the optimist, he
wrote “Our collectors are doing so well that by autumn we will be able to show that North Saanich has more than half !1 the total known species as yet found on the Island. … Before we are through we will show that Professor Stevenson and Professor Macoun are only attempting to tell what nature had done for Saanich before the advent of man.” Unfortunately Professor Macoun was unable to complete his list. It ends at specimen 265, Linaria cymbalaria, Kenilworth ivy,”a casual garden escape” collected on June 28th. On July l8th, in his ninetieth year, he died peacefully in his sleep. He was buried in Patricia Bay Cemetery, but his body was later disinterred and removed to Ottawa for national recognition.
In addition, John Macoun was responsible for establishing the first migratory bird sanctuary in North America. Last Mountain Lake Sanctuary in Saskatchewan was established in 1887 as a result of his work. Macoun’s initiative led to the establishment of a network of sanctuaries across the country and made Canada a leader in signing the terms of the Migratory Birds Convention Act of 1916. In recognition of this legacy, Shoal Harbour Migratory Bird Sanctuary was established in 1931, by an Order-in-Council of the Canadian government.
Macoun’s Meadow Foam (Limnanthes macounii)