George Chaffee walked to the burial site with his brother and a pair of shovels. Their choices for where to make the grave were limited, given the sprawling traditional territory of the Kwikwetlem First Nation had been reduced to two small reserves on the banks of the Coquitlam River.
Chaffee remembers the day as it unfolded nearly three decades ago. The brothers started digging until they were four to six feet below ground level. They dug until they knew the space would hold their uncle, Kenneth, who had passed away recently. Whenever a member of the Kwikwetlem First Nation dies, Chaffee says, their life is not over. Their spirit lives on, so it’s important to give them a peaceful place of rest.
The brothers hoisted themselves out of the grave. They collected their mother and other family members to help lower Kenneth’s casket into the ground.
For Chaffee, in his mid-20s at the time, it was a moment of reflection. He wished he’d seized an important opportunity offered by his uncle. Kenneth knew the nation’s ancestral language, hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓, and tried to teach it to his nephew when he was young. But Chaffee was a kid who got frustrated easily and was far more interested in video games. He only took note of the hən̓q̓əmin̓əm swear words.
Still, many of Kenneth’s teachings did live on in George Chaffee, whose mother Evie was the first female chief of the Kwikwetlem First Nation.
He wanted to learn how to fish. Fishing is central to the history of the Kwikwetlem people. For thousands of years, sockeye salmon in the Coquitlam River sustained the nation; directly translated from hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓, Kwikwetlem means “red fish up the river.”
It was Kenneth who shared those lessons, asking nothing in return. He merely instructed Chaffee to sit down and listen. Listen to learn how he strung together a web and hanging twine to form a net. Listen to which spots were best for catching fish along the Coquitlam River.
“When I teach you this, you will never be starving again,” Kenneth said. And when it’s your time to teach the next generation, you will know what to say.
Chaffee listened. Fishing would become a constant in his life, a means of support for himself and his family.
Now Kenneth had died, and Chaffee needed to give him a proper burial.
As family members leaned together to lift Kenneth’s casket into the grave, water started to seep into the hole. At first, it was a slow flow. Suddenly, when the casket was at the bottom, the dirt walls popped.
Water gushed into the grave. The casket flipped over in the water.
Chaffee erupted in tears.
The Kwikwetlem First Nation has for 10,000 years inhabited what is now called Coquitlam, British Columbia. Dozens of archaeological sites at Coquitlam Lake demonstrate that the nation was one of the first to arrive in the Lower Mainland.
However, in the mid-1800s, the Kwikwetlem First Nation’s traditional territory was stripped away from them. As part of the reserve formation under the Indian Act, the Kwikwetlem peoples were given Coquitlam Indian Reserve 1 and 2 near what is today Colony Farm Regional Park.
The reserves were slivers of the nation’s original land, which stretched from Coquitlam Lake to Surrey. Before colonization, members migrated depending on the time of year. In the winter, families would head up to the mountains and have dancing celebrations. In the spring months, members would flock to lower elevations to fish.
Their graveyard was always in the mountains — where there was no flood risk.
“Our graveyards were never in a floodplain,” Chaffee said. “It is disrespectful to put a graveyard where you know the water is going to flood it.”
Under colonial rule, Kwikwetlem members weren’t allowed to visit their burial grounds up in the mountains. The nation had to move its cemetery to either Coquitlam IR 1, a 5,000-year-old fishing village, or IR 2, which used to hold the nation’s Big House.
They chose IR 2, which is also known as setɬamékmən, for its size (about 80 hectares) and spiritual significance. Chaffee also says the Kwikwetlem Elders picked that spot because of their knowledge about the land: they knew the area never flooded, even though it wasn’t in the mountains.
“Even when a 200-year flood will come, the area will stay above water,” Chaffee said.
Years later, the Kwikwetlem First Nation asked hydrologic experts to simulate what a 200-year flood would look like at setɬamékmən. Results from their modelling showed that the cemetery stayed dry, while the rest of the land flooded.
“That small little piece of land, where the graveyard is, turned into an island,” Chaffee said. “When you see that, it’s exactly what the Elders were trying to tell you.”
The first recorded burial at the new cemetery was in 1881.
In 1999, George Chaffee’s mother died. To the distress of her family and the nation she once led as chief, she too was laid in a water-filled grave.
Afterwards, the Kwikwetlem Elders gave Chaffee a question to answer: why was their cemetery flooding?
Engineering a river
Chaffee, now 50, is a Kwikwetlem band councillor and a knowledge keeper, meaning it’s his job to share the history of the nation with newer generations. That history includes a series of projects built by settlers that have wreaked unintended effects, problems brought to light thanks to advocacy and scientific detective work.
In 1904, the construction of a three-metre dam disrupted water flow on the Coquitlam River. Roughly a decade later, a larger dam was built to generate electricity for growing communities in Greater Vancouver.
That second dam raised the level of Coquitlam Lake by 18 metres. To cope with fluctuating water levels, diking was established on the Coquitlam River to protect low-lying properties from flooding if the water level from the river rises.
After all of that engineering of the Coquitlam River, Chaffee says, Kwikwetlem Elders noticed the flooding of gravesites.
“We went down four feet and started getting water,” Chaffee said. He remembers the water levels rising “year after year, especially from 1980 on.” For the deceased, there was no safe place to eternally rest. “We were losing people like every community does, and the water was getting really bad.”
His mother made the case to municipal government officials and organizations that diking was changing the hydrology of the river, which was flooding their cemetery.
“She tried to put a spotlight on the cemetery to say, ‘You guys are flooding us out,’” Chaffee said.
With encouragement from his nation, Chaffee dove headfirst into understanding river hydrology and diking systems. He organized a couple of studies that confirmed development on the mountains above the cemetery had altered the natural course of water flow.
“This wasn’t all developed at one time,” he said. “What happens on a mountain, if there’s no cement on it, when the water hits it absorbs and slowly releases it down. When you [develop] it, water will come down streams quicker.”
Over time, as well, dikes erected in the area around the cemetery were causing silt to accumulate in the river, which changed the water level.
In 2003, a brief hydrogeologic study acknowledged that groundwater was seeping into the cemetery. It also offered two temporary solutions for the nation: construct drains on three sides of the cemetery and replace the ground with “suitable fill” to reduce water flow.
The group estimated that it would cost the nation $75,000 to remove water from the cemetery. Chaffee, however, wasn’t satisfied. He still didn’t have precise answers to where the water was originating, or why it was causing soupy groundwater.
He’d already travelled far on what he calls his “journey” to solve the riddle of his people’s flooding graves. But he was tiring on the path.
When he’d started his quest nearly a quarter century ago he didn’t have any knowledge about the river, the dams or how his culture had been assaulted. He hadn’t grasped how his ancestors had lived in the mountains and forests for thousands of years, used salmon in the Coquitlam River as the “food in their cupboard,” and lost it all because of colonization.
“I didn’t understand until I was older that it was wrong, we shouldn’t have been like that,” Chaffee said. “I went on the journey to understand why we were like that, and a couple times in hearing that, I went off track. I couldn’t handle it. I couldn’t handle it.”
In 2009, Chaffee took a leave of absence from council, and work on the cemetery came to a halt.
On a rainy afternoon in November, at the Kwikwetlem band office, George Chaffee gives credit to the guidance he’s received from his nation’s Elders. They are the reason he returned as an elected councillor in 2019, and pledged to restart the cemetery project.
“My Elders made sure that I never forgot where we were, who we are, and why we do what we do.
“My Elders are humble, but they’re very strong. We have not that many left, but the Elders that I do have left, I’m honoured to fight for them. The passion I have comes from them.”
And so when they asked him to resume his journey, he agreed. “I always called it ‘banging the drum’ and I banged the drum again. I said ‘cemetery, cemetery, cemetery.’”
Last summer, the research Chaffee collected from his studies in the early 2000s helped secure nearly $700,000 in funding for the nation.
Centring Indigenous expertise
For about two years, Curtis Fullerton, strategic initiatives co-ordinator for the Kwikwetlem First Nation, has assisted Chaffee with hydrology research and funding for the cemetery project. Bit by bit, the answer to the puzzle is coming clear. The evidence shows damming of the Coquitlam River, urban sprawl and climate change have combined to alter the water pattern of the Coquitlam River.
“With urban development, you have surface runoff from roads, sidewalks, parking lots,” Fullerton said. “Rainwater can’t penetrate through surfaces into the ground or make their way into the river.” Fluctuations due to climate change mean “less water is available to streams in the Coquitlam River during dry periods, and there’s more flow volume during storms.”
Fullerton added that the early studies Chaffee conducted were “snapshots” that didn’t paint the full picture of why the cemetery was flooding. The funding has allowed the nation to address the gaps in those studies, and understand the movement in the water table below the cemetery through groundwater and surface water monitoring systems.
Wells were installed in the cemetery over the summer to collect data on the relationship between surface water levels in the Coquitlam River and groundwater in the graveyard.
The funding will also go towards initiating more hydrology studies, finding permanent solutions for the cemetery and using ground-penetrating radars to identify unmarked graves.
The Kwikwetlem First Nation received $300,000 from the First Nations Land Management Resource Centre and $387,000 from the First Peoples’ Cultural Council. The money from the FPCC came as part of a larger project that promised to allocate parts of $5.4 million to 16 Indigenous groups across B.C. looking to repair historical infrastructure. Fullerton notes that the funding allowed the nation to hire Northwest Hydraulic Consultants, a consultancy that provides solutions for water-related issues, to help with their project.
He said the company has previously worked on flooding issues with the Fraser Basin Council and will provide ideas on how the nation can build a sustainable cemetery.
“They’re very knowledgeable and experts at the topic and the region,” Fullerton said. “The funding allowed us to have the right people at the table. It’s just added a lot of strength to the work we’re doing.”
Karen Aird, heritage program manager at the FPCC, told The Tyee that the peer review committee selected Kwikwetlem’s application because of their dedication to recognizing their ancestors in a time when climate change is affecting burial sites.
“The peer review committee, they’re all Indigenous experts, and understand how important it is to care for their ancestors — even if they passed 1,000 years ago, or if they passed yesterday,” Aird said.
Kristen Barnett is glad to see the research funding going directly to the Kwikwetlem First Nation. The assistant professor of Indigenous archeology at the University of British Columbia is a member of the Unangax Nation of the Aleutian Islands in southwestern Alaska.
Barnett says the cemetery project’s funding structure gives the nation more control over the future of its community. It means “the reclaiming of being able to create futures within your own perspectives,” Barnett said. “What that does is that it signifies, it highlights that the capacity to do this work is situated within the band.”
Chaffee is eager to see what can be learned from the cemetery wells installed over the summer. After big fall and winter rainfalls, he expects this spring to know where, exactly, water is leaking into the ground.
Long sought answers finally appear close at hand.
Chaffee maintains that his journey has never been about pointing fingers or casting blame. He just wants to give his Elders a safe place to rest.
“I’ve had to bury my cousin, my mom, my uncle in water,” he said.
“This project is a way to give that respect back. It’s a way to give a voice to the people that are gone.”
Next in the series: We meet Reaman Miller, a young man who has returned home to Kwikwetlem to help shape the future of his nation.
Read more: Indigenous, Rights + Justice, Environment
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