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The April 2015 issue of Focus Magazine told the story of the landmark acquisition. The story had the title “Saving Grace”.

The First Nations met news of a long-awaited purchase with cautious optimism. On March 17, during a ceremony hosted by the Tseycum First Nation in Saanich, Chief Vern Jacks delivered a heartfelt plea to Minister Steve Thomson. He requested a definitive end to past wrongdoings, evoking a strong response from the gathered audience. His demand for government accountability reverberated throughout the crowded longhouse, where hundreds gathered to witness this historic moment.

Thomson offered his personal regret for the upset caused to First Nations’ ancestors and committed to prevent a repetition of past mistakes. Despite these assurances, he has been vague about specifics on how the Heritage Conservation Act will be amended to avoid future conflicts like the one over Grace Islet, leading to skepticism among some, like Tsartlip councillor Joni Olsen.

Content Background

A Conflict Rooted in Historical Neglect and Miscommunication

In January, the provincial government, under mounting pressure from First Nations and their supporters, put a stop to the construction of a residence on Grace Islet, a small Saltspring Island’s Ganges Harbour burial island containing 18 graves. This victory was bittersweet for the First Nations, who had for years fought against this culturally insensitive project.

First Nations and locals alike were horrified when they discovered in mid-2014 that the construction had commenced, despite their vocal objections. The provincial government, instead of honoring the cultural customs of both First Nations and non-First Nations communities, had granted the landowner permission to build his home amidst a cemetery, a severe violation of respect for the deceased.

Minister Thomson ignored protests and denied requests to revoke the owner’s development permit, issued under the Heritage Conservation Act. This Act, designed to protect ancient graves, was effectively used to sanction a deeply disrespectful act, allowing the landowner to encase two graves within the proposed house’s crawl space.

The Turning Point: From Conflict to Resolution

In response to this escalating crisis, the Cowichan Tribes threatened an aboriginal title court case over the island in November. Even though Thomson insists this wasn’t his motive, it was after this threat that he began seeking a resolution.

Eventually, an agreement was reached to purchase Grace Islet for a total of $5.45 million, relieving the government of a significant burden. The Nature Conservancy of Canada assumed stewardship of the island and is collaborating with First Nations and the government to develop a remediation plan for the half-constructed building and a conservation management plan for the ecosystem.

The Road Ahead: Promises, Skepticism, and the Need for Real Change

Despite the resolution, many in the First Nations, like Olsen, remain doubtful of Thomson’s intentions and promises. Olsen pointed to numerous meetings and letters over the years informing the government of Grace Islet’s cultural and spiritual significance and the grave sites’ importance, questioning Thomson’s sudden realization of the island’s value.

Tseycum Chief Vern Jacks insists that Thomson be held accountable for his promises and wants a First Nations committee to work with Thomson’s ministry to propose legislative and implementation changes. While hopeful, he remains realistic, knowing that real change hinges on the government’s willingness to adapt.

Saltspring resident and Cowichan descendant Joe Akerman, who runs the Facebook Grace Islet page, also expressed cautious optimism but reminded everyone that more work needs to be done. He emphasized the need for new policies that genuinely respect First Nations’ spiritual and cultural values and their ancestors.

Archaeology professor George Nicholas, director of Simon Fraser University’s Intellectual Property Issues in Cultural Heritage (IPinCH) project, proposed several recommendations to prevent future conflicts. He emphasized the availability of alternatives to avoid costly and divisive disputes between developers and those seeking to protect ancestral sites vital to Aboriginal peoples’ wellbeing.

The Path Forward

The Grace Islet conflict underscores the importance of recognizing and respecting cultural values and ancestral rights in land use decisions. For real change to happen, the government must not only make promises but also demonstrate its commitment through actions. The First Nations communities, though hopeful, remain vigilant and determined to hold the government accountable for its words. Their struggle for justice and dignity continues.