At last, the ancestors of the Cowichan, Tseycum, Penelakut, Tsawout, Tsartlip and Pauquachincan peoples can rest peacefully on Grace Islet, a little islet off Salt Spring Island in British Columbia.
A partnership between the First Nations, the B.C. government and the Nature Conservancy of Canada was formed to buy the islet from an owner that was building a home over burial cairns. A framework agreement has been signed with the owner, and hopes are this will be finalized soon.
All parties need to be commended for this agreement to solve a very contentious issue, with a special mention for the owner who agreed to do this.
The clash over Grace Islet arose when the government's Archaeology Branch was considering issuing permits to build over 20 burial cairns on the islet. First Nations were adamantly opposed to any interference with these burial sites and mounted a public campaign to stop development. Many people supported these efforts.
The issue of the ability to desecrate First Nations burial sites for development while non-First Nations burial sites are rarely disturbed rose its head again. First Nations are frequently asked to move their burial sites to make room for development, and this was not an acceptable option for the burial sites on Grace Islet.
The provincial government's decision to allow development on Grace Islet sparked a strongly negative reaction. When the First Nations found that the developer had breached the conditions set out in the permit and had built a footing into one of the cairns and damaged another, outrage mounted.
The B.C. government has been very reluctant to interfere with private property even though the Heritage Conservation Act applies to both Crown and private lands. Under the Act, the government has the power to stop development where there is proposed desecration of burial sites but has never done so.
What's next for Grace Islet?
Once the purchase is completed, the parties will likely defer to First Nations on taking down the foundation, fixing the damaged cairns and doing ceremonies to make things right.
Then there will be the bigger job of determining how the burial cairns can be protected. I am sure First Nations will want to keep the site private and used for cultural practices. But the province and the Nature Conservancy of Canada may have other ideas, such as using the islet as an ecological reserve that can be open to the public.
Having come this far, I hope the parties will find common ground on how to protect and respect the burial sites. As the Nature Conservancy of Canada will own the islet, ownership may become an issue if an agreement with First Nations cannot be finalized, and this may not be the long-term solution.
It is encouraging that there is a resolution to Grace Islet. It was the same resolution for the Musqueam when the First Nation purchased the Marpole burial site. In 2007, the province purchased lands for Snuneymuwx where a burial site was found. The province normally pleads unaffordability in these issues.
Buying private property is normally beyond the financial capability of First Nations. Some people have suggested that the provincial government establish a fund that would be used to buy properties with burial sites. But there are thousands of such sites within B.C., so there must be other solutions as well.
More site-fights mounting
B.C. Minister Steve Thompson says he will be looking at the Heritage Conservation Act to develop further policy. This is one of the issues that the Joint Working Group on Heritage Conservation has been trying to deal with for over seven years with little political motivation from the province.
The Heritage Conservation Act allows for s. 4 agreements with First Nations to manage heritage sites on all lands. The province has been afraid to enter into these agreements for fear First Nations would stop development. Even without these agreements, developments are being stopped. In Sto:lo territory, Corpus Management was denied a permit by Abbotsford city council for a $40-million project because of burial sites. Site C has many burial sites that will be flooded. These issues are only mounting and could be resolved with agreements with First Nations.
The B.C. government's failure to fully deal with burial grounds either by legislation or policy continues to stop development or create contentious situations. Grace Islet is a good news story, but purchasing properties is only a solution if money can be found to buy them. There should be other ideas, and the B.C. government needs to work with First Nations to find solutions.
It is time to recognize First Nation jurisdiction and management over these sites so First Nations ancestors can rest in peace. It is past time for B.C. to work with First Nations to deal with burial sites, rather than force First Nations to go to court using Tsilhqot'in and aboriginal title as their big stick. After all, burying your dead and leaving them in peace is a basic human right.