Musqueam in Vancouver defend sacred burial site against condos

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"Protecting the sacred burial sites of our ancestors is the most fundamental responsibility that we have to those who have gone before us," explains Grand Chief Stewart Phillip from the Union of BC Indian Chiefs.

c̓əsnaʔəm, also known as the Marpole Midden, was designated as a National Historic Site of Canada in 1933. It contains the remains of a Coast Salish winter village as well as artefacts and undisturbed intact burials.

Part of the Midden has been the centre of a growing controversy after condo developers began work on a site in the 1300 block of South West Marine Drive where the intact remains have been found, including those of two infants and another body.

After a protest by the Musqueam Indian Band in March, work at the site was temporarily stopped. But then, in April, it resumed again.

Since the latest discovery of remains in early May, the Musqueam people have been protesting in front of the site and holding vigil there, 24 hours a day.

"In our culture, we return to the earth, it's our ancestors final resting place, we don't want them to be disturbed," says Cecilia Point, a Musqueam spokesperson who has taken a leave of absence from her job at the Aboriginal Tourism Association of BC to help out at the site.

"We're staying until we get our land back. First Nations grave sites do not get the same respect that other people's gravesites get. This piece of land needs to be protected and we've promised our ancestors we will."

"Our history, our culture is that of all Canadians. By erasing it, it is tantamount to an act of assimilation," according to Musqueam Band Councillor Wade Grant. "A lot has already been erased, there is little left of our 1000 years of occupation."

Provincial government fails to act

"The Province hasn't been addressing this," claims Grant. "It's a National Historic Site; there has never been proper protection under the Heritage Conservation Act. Remains have been removed and we don't feel they are sensing the urgency."

"It's astonishing that the permits were ever issued to build. It is just another instance of racial bias against Aboriginal people. Why should First Nations people have to tolerate such a desecration of our burial sites?" asks Grand Chief Phillip, who stood in solidarity with 60 Musqueam Elders who travelled to Victoria earlier this month to bring their concerns to the provincial legislature.

"We wanted to bear witness as MLA's Scott Fraser and Spencer Chandra Herbert raised the issue. We were there in full regalia, unfortunately, it was a non-response. For the provincial and federal governments to stand silent on the sidelines is unconscionable."

"We would have thought that Canada learned its lesson during the Oka crisis in Quebec and at the Ipperwash conflict at Kettle Point," notes Chief Phillip. "Both those events were triggered by land disputes involving burial grounds. This is a colossal failure of leadership on behalf of the government who have an obligation to look after the interests of Aboriginal people, yet they are nowhere to be seen."

"We need to be respecting First Nations people whose territories our province is build on," says Vancouver West End MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert. "On May 10, we addressed the legislature; I asked the Minister when he would act. The Musqueam have been reasonable, the City has been reasonable but we have yet to hear from the Premier. We need to ask how on a National Historic Site we got to the point where the Province issues permits to build a condo."

In a statement released by Public Affairs Officer Brennan Clarke, the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources has said: "The provincial archaeological permits were issued after carefully weighing the condition of the site with the interests of the private landowner and the quality of the proposed site management plan. National historic site designation by the federal government recognizes the midden's significance but offers no legal protection. The Archaeology Branch is satisfied that the proposed site management plan balances the condition of the site (heavily disturbed) with the interests of the private landowner."

Land swap proposed

Bob Ransford is the spokesperson for the developer, Century Holdings Ltd, and the property owners, Gary and Fran Hackett. "Their preference would be to develop the site; if that is not possible, they are open to alternatives. They are open to solutions on how to solve the problem," states Ransford.

"Musqueam have put forth ideas in the media to trade some lands they have today and might have in the future," adds Ransford. The City of Vancouver may make other lands available. So far none have been properly documented showing the full value of the properties and put to my client in an official offer or proposal."

"One of the partners has owned the land in his family for 50 years," says Ransford. "It's a piece of private land. You don't just go in and take a piece of land without giving some compensation."

Native lands given away to private owners

"At the time that the property was bought, Natives were not allowed to purchase property," says Point. "The property was not purchased from us; the Crown just sold or gave the land to private owners without consulting us."

"We understand that the Hackett's have a financial investment in the land," says Grant. "I also understand the irony that technically that land was taken from us many generations ago."

"We need to have an understanding of who was here first," explains MLA Chandra Herbert. "We need to broaden our definition of heritage to include not only buildings, but also the heritage of people, a living history with connections to the distant past."

"This issue has been known for some time, and it's been badly handled all around. It's not good for Musqueam and it's not good for the developer, who has sold condos and is burning money, all because the Province didn't respect a Canadian Heritage Site."

"Seventy homeowners who recognize a shortage of market affordable housing, have signed contracts with the appropriate deposits," says Ransford, who also admits that a handful have withdrawn since the protests began. "I think the Musqueam are facing the same frustration my clients are. To solve this problem, someone has to come up with land and money and this hasn't happened yet".

According to Musqueam Band members, they have offered up a piece of property in Delta as a suggested land swap to resolve the conflict. "It would be nice if the Province admitted that they issued these permits in error and buy it out, but we put land on the table to help move this more quickly. Let's just get this done and get them out of our graveyards," says Point.

The Musqueam people 'won't let this go'

In addition to holding vigil every hour for almost a month at the burial site, Musqueam organized a day of action on Tuesday, May 29 to increase awareness about their cause.

In the morning, they protested outside Mountain View Cemetery, where Vancouver City Councillor Andrea Reimer was among those to stop by and show her support.

"This protest helps drive home the issue of the Midden. There is very little left as a historical connection to the land," says Reimer. "There is no simple solution but Musqueam and the City have laid out a reasonable way to settle this."

Reimer added her name to Mayor Gregor Robertson's and others who have signed the Musqueam petition asking the Province to rescind the archaeological permit.

"As we move forward it's complicated but we are coming to the table in good faith," says Reimer. "In the modern world, you need to reconcile the past, work in the present and find solutions that will work for the future when sitting at the table, but it takes coming to the table."

The Musqueam Day of Action Tuesday also consisted of a rally at Robson Square and a protest outside the constituency office of BC Premier Christy Clark.

"Today we stand in front of the Premier's office, yet to hear her response," Grant said to the crowd of protesters and onlookers. "How would she feel is someone went to her grandparents' grave and built a condo? We will not leave Cusnaum until an adequate solution is found."

"The Musqueam People won't let this go away," says Chandra Herbert. "And I thank them for that. Their heritage is Canadian heritage and we need to respect that."

Late on Wednesday, the Musqueam announced that they felt compelled to escalate their protest actions, issuing the following statement: 

"After our busy Day of Action went largely unnoticed, we are left with no choice but to move our protest to the Arthur Laing Bridge to get the attention this issue needs. Our elected officials have not been heard. We were not heard when we stopped construction in March. We were not heard when we marched down Granville on May 3. We were not heard when we went to the legislature on May 10. We were not heard after three events on May 29."

"We wil be heard after thousands of people's life are sadly impacted tomorrow!" Please meet at c̓əsnaʔəm at 7am sharp and we will move together to the bridge at 7:30am."

Samantha Sarra is a freelance journalist based out of Vancouver.  For more than a decade she has worked in television and print as a journalist committed to covering human rights, politics, culture and the arts. As an activist she volunteers for several organizations and currently sits on the board of The Shanti Uganda Society.

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