Nestled within the bustle of Victoria, Pioneer Square Cemetery, a tranquil oasis home to historic gravestones and towering trees, stands as the original resting place for pioneer settlers. As its paths, landscape, and gravestones undergo reverential restorations, Grace Islet, an idyllic ancient Coast Salish burial site adorned with aged oaks and juniper on the outskirts of Salt Spring Island, faces desolation from impending residential development.
After pondering for a year, British Columbia’s Archaeology Branch opted to grant a provincial heritage site alteration permit during Reconciliation Week to an entrepreneur from Alberta. The permit empowers him to construct his lavish waterfront holiday home atop this ancient First Nations burial ground.
The granted permit facilitates the businessman to build his dwelling on stilts above the islet’s burial ground, with the purpose of “conserving” the historic burial cairns beneath the house structure, patio decks, and landscaping. The permit’s issuance stirred significant resistance from numerous local Coast Salish First Nations, with Chief Earl Jack of the Penelakut Tribe branding the proposed construction atop the cemetery as a “contemptuous and crude proposal.”
Renowned as part of the extensive ancient village of Shiya’hwt waht, Grace Islet at Ganges Harbour’s head has a well-documented archaeological history. Archaeological assessment studies corroborate two distinct locations of ancient human remains and a minimum of 15 other burial cairn structures within the camas lilies spread across this rocky half-hectare islet.
The Penelakut Tribe voiced their concerns in writing last July to the Salt Spring Island RCMP regarding the property owner’s alleged bulldozing and clearance of the burial islet. The Archaeology Branch staff confirmed the violation of existing permit conditions in the land clearance. Upon a subsequent visit to Grace Islet, First Nations chronicled the desecration, with the original vegetation and soils stripped down to bedrock by a small digger, leaving several burial cairns exposed within the proposed house’s blueprint.
Chief Jack, in a June letter to Minister Steve Thomson, reiterated his call for “upholding our ancestral laws, beliefs and aboriginal rights to protect our ancestral dead from further disruption by private development at this burial islet.” Regarding the entire islet as an ancient and historical First Nations cemetery, he implored, “We advocate for public respect and preservation of this sacred place, not for its desecration and development sanctioned by your Ministry.”
Coast Salish heritage specialist Eric McLay offered his view after the permit’s issuance, suggesting a prevalent bias against First Nations people in such bureaucratic decisions by the Archaeology Branch. He critiqued the treatment of First Nations people and their deceased ancestors as mere objects that could be dug up, bulldozed, and built over without any repercussions, further eroding their sense of equality, heritage, and respect, even posthumously.
Justine Batten, the Archaeology Branch Director, responded in writing to Focus’s query about the branch’s interpretation of the Heritage Conservation Act, stating the goal is to maintain heritage “but in a balanced relation with other land uses.” This evokes contemplation about what kind of development would be deemed acceptable by the Archaeology Branch within Victoria’s pioneer cemeteries.
Batten contends that in the Grace Islet case, the landowner had secured the necessary permit, redesigned his house to avoid any interference with the rock features assumed to be burial cairns and a restrictive covenant will be registered on the certificate of title, ensuring future property owners are aware of the site. However, substituting “rock features” with “gravestones” and “the site” with “Pioneer Square Cemetery” makes it easier to understand the profound indignation experienced by the Coast Salish peoples.
At Grace Islet, Batten’s endeavour to “attain a compromise that is satisfactory to both parties, allowing the development while safeguarding the contents of the archaeological site to the maximum possible extent,” found no acceptance among First Nations. Penelakut Elder and hereditary grave worker August Sylvester stated, “This is a shmukw’elu—a cemetery—a place to respect and avoid in honor of the deceased and their spirits.” Batten’s rebuttal is that if the protection desired is more than mere avoidance and the aspiration is to prohibit any alteration of the lands, then purchasing the property might be the most effective resolution.
However, the irony of having to buy back a burial site they never relinquished in the first place is not lost on the Coast Salish people. The issue of preservation of First Nations heritage sites in BC and the measures needed to safeguard them call for urgent attention. The ongoing conundrum underlines the necessity of moving beyond the existing narrow bureaucratic mindset and exploring novel regulatory mechanisms to protect the cultural and historical heritage of First Nations. Unless significant changes are implemented, the status quo continues to threaten all First Nation archaeological sites with the potential threat of demolition. Despite efforts made during Reconciliation Week to raise public awareness about the extensive and profound systemic discrimination against First Nations peoples, there remains much work to be done.