Buried promises

By Katherine Palmer Gordon, September 2016

The Province’s failure on First Nations burial sites is leading to more Grace Islets and potentially another Gustafsen Lake.

BC Lands Minister Steve ThomsonON THE EVENING OF March 17, 2015, the Tseycum longhouse in Saanich was permeated with a sense of profound relief. The desecration of 18 ancestral graves on Grace Islet, a First Nations’ burial site in Saltspring Island’s Ganges Harbour, had finally been stopped. 

Hundreds of people gathered together in the longhouse not only to express their thankfulness that the desecration had ended, but to share their grief over the spiritual insult done to their ancestors. Provincial Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations Steve Thomson was also there, but for a different reason: to apologize for the fact that the violation of the burial ground not only occurred under his watch, but with his approval. 

Nine months earlier, with a Heritage Conservation Act (HCA) permit in hand issued by staff at Thomson’s Archaeology Branch, a property developer had begun building his retirement home in the midst of Grace Islet’s graves. First Nations, horrified at the wilful destruction of their ancestral cemetery, pleaded repeatedly with Thomson to revoke the permit and protect the site instead, which the government had the authority to do under the HCA. Their protests were brushed aside, however, and onlookers watched in acute dismay as building materials were piled on the tiny islet and construction began in mid-2014. 

Threatened with an Aboriginal title lawsuit, Thomson finally caved in, paying more than $5 million to buy the island and stop the building work from continuing. That was too late, however, to prevent significant damage occurring to the graves, and searing emotional and cultural injury to the people whose ancestors had been so disrespected. An apology was the least that Steve Thomson could offer. 

Thomson also promised: “I give you my sincere commitment to work with you to ensure that something like this never happens again.” He reiterated the commitment to Focus shortly after the Tseycum event, stating that he had instructed his staff to review how the HCA is implemented with respect to First Nations burial grounds, specifically to avoid any future “Grace Islet-type situations” (see “Saving Grace,” Focus, April 2015). 

One might think that—faced by a roomful of people hanging on his every word, and by such palpable grief—Thomson would keep his word. But, 18 months later, it looks very much like he hasn’t. 

Thomson’s communications staff did not respond to requests for an interview with him. Focus received only a short email instead, insisting that a review has taken place and that as a result, the Archaeological Branch has “tightened up procedures” and “is paying closer attention to areas that may contain burial sites.” That closer attention may include “more frequent site visits by a branch archaeologist, and greater detail required from proponents for any planned development.” 

In other words, as far as anyone can tell, nothing has been put in place to ensure a “Grace Islet-type situation” cannot be repeated. It also seems no First Nations were involved in the “review,” despite Thomson’s promise to work with them. 

Dr Judith Sayers, a member of the Hupacasath First Nation, is co-chair of the Joint Working Group on First Nations Heritage Conservation, established in 2007 by the provincial government and First Nations Leadership Council to help improve the protection of First Nations cultural and heritage sites. You’d think Sayers of all people would have been involved in a review. But Sayers says: “As far as I am aware, nothing has happened.”

Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs President Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, who witnessed Thomson’s promise at Tseycum, says he is also not aware of any review at all taking place, let alone one that involved First Nations: “That’s very disappointing to me.” If Thomson’s goal was to prevent another “Grace Islet-type situation,” Phillip believes Thomson’s failure to keep his promise makes the opposite outcome inevitable.

Indeed, there may be more than one such situation already brewing. In New Westminster, a school built over a burial site which is believed to contain the remains of a Tsilhqot’in chief is about to be torn down. Tsilhqot’in Nation has already put the Education Ministry on notice that they will not permit any desecration of his grave to occur. 

Further east, in the Similkameen Valley, the ancient remains of five people were uncovered and seriously damaged on February 29 this year when an unsuspecting Cawston property owner began clearing part of his land. He reported the incident immediately, and the Lower Similkameen Indian Band (LSIB) was called in to recover what they could of the scattered bones—fewer than half to date, according to LSIB Chief Keith Crow. “We’ve been able to repatriate maybe 400 bones so far, but that means there are at least 600 left there, if not more.”

Crow says that the existence of burials on the Cawston site has been known to government since as early as 1952. Despite that, efforts to have the area protected under the HCA have been unsuccessful to date. “I just want to take care of our poor ancestors,” he says in frustration. “These are our great-great-great grandparents. They were properly laid to rest on that place and it is our sacred duty to ensure we look after them.”

On April 25, Crow’s frustration at the lack of action by government to help protect the site boiled over. In a scathing letter to the Premier, Crow aimed a warning shot across the government’s bows: “Oka, Ipperwash, and Gustafsen Lake all proved very costly and involved the deployment of hundreds of police and the Canadian military. LSIB is prepared to begin a highly publicized protest unless you take immediate action.”

The 1990 Oka crisis involved a land dispute in Quebec that lasted more than ten weeks and resulted in the death of a police officer. In 1995, it was Ojibway protester Dudley George who was killed by police at Ipperwash. The Gustafsen Lake standoff in BC, a protest by First Nations over an ancient sacred site, took place the same year and lasted a month. The cost of RCMP involvement was the highest of its kind in Canadian history.

Crow’s implied threat that the government faces a similar scenario at Cawston didn’t achieve the result he hoped for. On June 7, LSIB issued a further press release stating: “Premier Clark told Chief Crow that her government would engage in a meaningful and responsive way. That has not yet happened. Our patience is running thin. Failure to act is not an option.” Nonetheless, by the last week of July there was still no movement. To his dismay, Crow was told by a provincial official that nothing would happen “this close to an election.” (The next BC provincial election is in May 2017.) 

On July 27, the Okanagan Nation Alliance (ONA)—of which LSIB is a member and Stewart Phillip Chair—wrote again to the Premier, as well as Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation Minister John Rustad and Steve Thomson, urging them to re-engage on this “escalating” matter. This time they left no room for doubt about their intentions: “Direct action is the next step in moving this issue forward.” 

Asked by Focus for the government’s response, Thomson’s ministry staff replied by email: “The Province shares the concerns about the recent discovery of human remains and is currently working with the LSIB, the ONA and the landowner in a collaborative manner on solutions to protect the remains. The next meeting between all interested parties is scheduled for the end of August.”

If it’s aggravating for journalists to receive that kind of non-response from government, it must be triply so for Crow. He says LSIB is committed to finding a solution to protecting the remains and is using every effort to engage government, but doesn’t feel it’s reciprocated. It was LSIB who organized and planned the August meeting, not the government, and if he’d had his way, the meeting would have been held much sooner: “I find it frustrating that it seems no-one else is taking this seriously except for the LSIB.” 

Crow did not comment on the likelihood of protest action occurring if discussions at the August meeting failed, but as things stood at time of writing, the potential for a positive outcome was not promising. 

Grace Islet wasn’t the first situation of its kind—think Bear Mountain, Nanaimo’s Departure Bay, and Musqueam’s Marpole site in Vancouver. Given the government’s apparent unwillingness to respond to First Nations and implement any meaningful changes to the way the HCA is implemented, it seems likely that it will not be the last. And the next one, whether it is at Cawston or elsewhere, could have even more serious consequences for government. 

Stewart Phillip believes that direct action may be the only alternative left to First Nations pushed to the wall over the mistreatment of their forebears: “It seems there will have to be a full-pitched battle before the Province will act to find a resolution and protect these ancestral remains.” 

Katherine Palmer Gordon is a former BC Chief Treaty Negotiator and the author of six books, including We Are Born With the Songs Inside Us (Harbour, 2013). She is currently working on New Zealand’s final treaties with First Nations there.