Cole Island sits like a lonely sentinel in the middle of the View Royal end of Esquimalt Harbour. It’s a haven for kayakers and other boaters, as well as those looking to get a taste of military history.
But it wasn’t always that way.
In 2004, View Royal resident Linda Carswell had grown frustrated, seeing the island and its historic munitions buildings fall into disrepair, their wood pilfered for various purposes. After a faction of individuals began squatting on the island, she took it upon herself to take action.
“They were using the wood to make leantos, they were burning the wood, they were burning their garbage – they were using Cole Island as a toilet,” she recalled. “I just felt to stand by and let them do that would just be a travesty, so I started the Friends of Cole Island.”
Clearly many others felt the same way about this “floating” park that falls within the boundaries of Colwood, but is considered by many to be a part of View Royal. The community rallied around the efforts of Carswell, who was joined in her efforts by husband, Barron, to help clean up the island, spearhead a period of restoration of the buildings and gain recognition for the island’s significance to Canada’s naval history.
This led in 2006 to Cole Island being officially recognized as a national historic site by Parks Canada. Having gained the support of the Town of View Royal from the beginning, the Friends of Cole Island was honoured in 2015 with a special recognition award from the Town for its protection and preservation of the site.
In February of this year, Heritage BC recognized the Friends and the many tradespeople, parks and heritage specialists, and others who have combined to put in thousands of hours of volunteer work to restore the island and its features, by bestowing an award of honour in the area of heritage education and awareness.
“It’s an important recognition of the community involvement on Cole Island. We see ourselves as a catalyst and champions for the island, but really it’s recognition of the community spirit centred around this particular piece of history,” said Barron Carswell. “I think we’ve tapped into this latent desire to save the historic features that we have.”
The project has been a labour of love for the Carswells and other volunteers, some of whom grew up in the area and have fond memories of spending time as kids on Cole Island.
On Tuesday the couple updated View Royal council on the progress and history of the preservation efforts.
In her presentation, Linda pointed out that the BC Heritage Conservation Act and the related Local Government Act protect heritage values, but do not protect historic places unless their values are “clearly enunciated by citizens.”
That passion and dedication helped convince the province and federal government to invest $200,000 in restoration works on Cole Island. The funds allowed for the improvement of infrastructure, safety and stabilization, and the installation of a dock for both maintenance purposes and visitor use.
Last year, further assessment and stabilization work was undertaken on buildings by conservation specialist company Macdonald and Lawrence. Included in the team was an expert in the field of traditional and historic methods of stone restoration.
Over the years, recreational boaters and others have taken to visiting the site. Last summer, in conjunction with the Canadian Forces Sailing Association, numerous groups toured the island and the ongoing restoration project, including representatives of the Royal BC Museum, Royal Victoria Yacht Club and the Victoria Historical Society.
While most of the heavy conservation lifting has been done on bringing the island and its various aspects back to a place of respect and dignity, future preservation will be up to the public in many ways.
It all comes back to community pride. As Barron Carswell noted, “We feel incredibly privileged to be living with this in our backyard.” For more information about efforts to conserve and restore Cole Island, visit coleisland.ca.