Saving Grace

By Katherine Palmer Gordon, April 2015

At a March longhouse ceremony, a cabinet minister promises change, but First Nations are still wary.

In mid-January, under heavy pressure from First Nations and their allies, the provincial government finally took action to halt the building of a house on Grace Islet, a tiny First Nations burial island in Saltspring Island’s Ganges Harbour. The hard-fought battle to protect the 18 graves on the island was at last won, although not without casualties. 

When First Nations in the region learned in mid-2014 that construction was under way on Grace Islet, despite the fact they had repeatedly told the government it was unacceptable, they were appalled. So were many local non-First Nations people. The provincial government had given the landowner its blessing to build his home in the midst of a cemetery, in utter violation of the cultural principles and beliefs governing respect for the dead in both First Nations and non-First Nations communities. 

Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations Steve Thomson brushed off protests and refused requests to revoke the owner’s development permit, issued under the Heritage Conservation Act. Although that Act purports to protect ancient grave sites, the provincial government permit did exactly the opposite, not only allowing the owner to build amongst the graves, but sanctioning the enclosure of two of them within the house’s crawl space. 

On November 10, driven to desperation, Cowichan Tribes responded by threatening an aboriginal title court case over the island. Although Thomson denies that was his motivation, it was only then that he appointed negotiators to attempt to find a solution to the impasse. It was with palpable relief that the government announced a few weeks later that an agreement had been reached to purchase Grace Islet. 

Under the terms of the deal, the owner was paid $850,000 for the land and a further $4.6 million to cover his costs and his “lost opportunity for enjoyment of the property.” The Nature Conservancy of Canada has taken over stewardship of the island and is now working with First Nations and the government on a remediation plan for the removal of the partly-built structure—without causing further offense to the graves—and an ecosystem conservation management plan.

News of the purchase was greeted with muted relief by First Nations. On March 17, at an event to recognize the agreement hosted by Tseycum First Nation in Saanich, Chief Vern Jacks looked Steve Thomson in the eye and told him: “I want you to remember tonight. What has been wrong must stop, and it must stop now.” Although Jacks spoke quietly, his words echoed in the rafters of the hushed longhouse, packed with hundreds of people who had come to witness the occasion. “The government must fix what it has done wrong.” 

Thomson responded by telling Jacks and the other assembled chiefs and dignitaries, “I personally want to express my sincere regret for the disturbance that has been caused to your ancestors.” He also promised: “I give you my sincere commitment to work with you to ensure that something like this never happens again.” 

He says he has already asked his staff to look at how the Heritage Conservation Act is implemented, specifically to avoid future Grace Islet-type situations, and different policy options. But no specific goals or timeline for the proposed review have been provided, nor any details about how First Nations will be involved. That isn’t an encouraging beginning to a process intended to bring about significant change, and Tsartlip councillor Joni Olsen, for one, is sceptical about how meaningful any such review will be. 

Olsen points out that Thomson still maintains it was only last summer that it became clear to him “conservation” of Grace Islet was called for, based on the cultural and spiritual value of Grace Islet to First Nations and its ecological values. But she says she met with government officials at least seven years ago, asking for the island to be protected for precisely those reasons. 

She’s far from the only one who has been telling the government that for a long time. As early as 2006 the importance of the grave sites was established in archaeological reports. Many letters were written to the government explaining the importance of the issue to First Nations, including a specific request by Penelakut Chief Earl Jack in August 2012 that the government cancel the owner’s development permit. For Thomson to now suggest he only recently realized how important Grace Islet is to First Nations is, says Olsen bluntly, simply not the truth. 

Olsen’s brother Adam, interim leader of BC’s Green Party, is also dubious, pointing to the government’s less than stellar track record to date in handling the Grace Islet affair. If it had acted immediately when First Nations first asked it to prevent development on the island, for example, the costs involved would have been far lower: “People need to understand that it was a complete waste of taxpayer dollars and that the government is entirely to blame. There has been a complete lack of political will to deal with this issue for years, and this is the result.” 

Olsen is far from ready to believe that anything meaningful will happen soon, let alone to celebrate the purchase of the island. “Personally, no, I’m still very much grieving for what has happened to our ancestors there and how they have been treated. That hasn’t been made right yet.”

Joe Akerman is a Saltspring resident of Cowichan descent who runs the Facebook Grace Islet page. Akerman also isn’t ready to celebrate wholeheartedly just yet: “Obviously the fact that the construction has been stopped is good, but any other outcome was impossible to imagine, anyway. We also have lost a great deal in this process. It’s been very hurtful to be told over and over again for years that our spiritual and cultural values and our dead aren’t important. Until new policies are in place and the law is changed, and respect is really shown for these values and for us over the long term, the promises to change are still just words.” 

Tseycum Chief Vern Jacks is adamant that First Nations will hold Minister Thomson accountable to his word. “He is going to have to walk his talk,” says Jacks firmly. “We can’t call this a success until we see real change. The desecration of our graves everywhere must stop now. The government can no longer hide behind policies that say it’s OK to dig up human beings—that goes against every teaching of ours, and against all principles of human decency.” 

Jacks wants a committee of First Nations to work with Thomson’s ministry and identify changes needed to the legislation, as well as the way it’s currently implemented. He’s hopeful that after the event in the longhouse, Thomson finally does understand the importance of this work, but he is also realistic: “If he just says, no, we can’t do that, it’s not in our policies, this isn’t going to get very far.”

Archaeology professor George Nicholas is the director of Simon Fraser University’s Intellectual Property Issues in Cultural Heritage, or IPinCH, project. When the conflict around Grace Islet was reaching its height last fall, Nicholas and his IPinCH colleagues penned a letter to Thomson pointing out that there are good alternatives available to “costly and divisive disputes between those wishing to develop private and public lands, and those who seek to protect ancestral sites and burial grounds essential to Aboriginal peoples’ wellbeing.” 

Nicholas has a number of suggestions that might help avoid future conflicts. “If BC is serious about change, it really needs to shift to a First Nations consent model instead of simply asking for First Nations input, then not taking that input into any serious account,” he says. Nicholas also proposes that people be more informed at time of purchase if a property potentially includes human remains or has other spiritual significance. “This is not at all well or consistently done right now. It’s provincial government legislation that prohibits disturbing graves and archaeological sites, and the government needs to ensure the public understand their responsibilities under it.” 

First Nations people, says Adam Olsen, have demonstrated repeatedly over many years that they are ready to work with landowners to find a way to protect sites respectfully. “We are very understanding of the concerns of private land owners. When there is a good system in place, that conversation can happen to everyone’s satisfaction.”

Indeed, many non-First Nations landowners have been strong allies in the battle for Grace Islet. On March 17 at Tseycum, Union of BC Indian Chiefs president Grand Chief Stewart Phillip thanked the hundred-plus non-First Nations people who had come to witness this “very important moment in our collective history. By working together, change is achievable. Here tonight,” he concluded, “we see that there is nothing we cannot overcome together.”

Before he left the longhouse, Minister Thomson told the room that what he had seen and been told that night will be etched in his memory. If that is true, then perhaps, notwithstanding the poorly-managed process to date, there is reason to be hopeful that a situation like Grace Islet is now truly part of history, not the future.

Katherine Palmer Gordon worked for more than 15 years as a contracts lawyer and First Peoples’ land claims negotiator and facilitator, both in New Zealand and BC.