Grace Islet: First Nations Burial Grounds are Sacred

By Roy L Hales


The British Columbia government has just decided that the Penelakut Tribe’s ancestral burial cairns on Grace Islet, on Salt Spring Island, can be desecrated.

Map Showing where Grace Islet is in relation to Ganges
Map SHowing where Grace Islet is in relation to Ganges

The site is an important part of the ancient village of Shiyahwt, which once spread across most of Ganges on Salt Spring Island.

There have been other burials uncovered in the modern village. Many believe those on Grace Islet may have been people for of high status because this has been the case on similar islets of the Salish Sea.

Shiyahwt was occupied for at least 5,000 years.

The burials on Grace Islet appear to be of such antiquity that they are difficult to identify. Never-the-less, an archaeological assessment confirmed that there were at least two sites with human remains and another 15 that possess cairn-like features.

After a year of deliberation, British Columbia’s Archaeology Branch decided to allow an Alberta businessman to build his waterfront vacation home there. To preserve the ancient cairns, he has to put it on stilts.

“To put a house on stilts over the top of our burial grounds is beyond disrespectful – not only of our rights, but of our culture, our ancestors and our people,” said Chief William C. Seymour of Cowichan Tribes.

On Saturday June 21,  Salt Spring Islanders for Justice and Reconciliation (SSIJAR), Salt Spring Residents for Responsible Land Use and other islanders will be standing in solidarity with the Penelakut and Cowichan Tribes and Saanich First Nations calling for a halt to construction.

The gathering will begin at 10 a.m. in Centennial Park next to the harbour in downtown Ganges and will include a short program of first nations and other speakers. After it is concluded, boats will paddle around the island. Representatives from all three communities will take part.

June 21 is also National Aboriginal Day.

John Rustad, BC’s Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation Minister, issued a press release stating, “National Aboriginal Day is also an important reminder of the fundamental role of the Aboriginal community in our socio-economic structure and how imperative it is to close the gaps that exist between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in our society. We are laying a strong foundation to address these gaps by cultivating healthy relationships based on mutual trust, understanding and reconciliation ….”

This is not the first desecration of a First Nation’s site.

Grace Islet Cama lilies & Sea Blush
Grace Islet Cama lilies & Sea Blush (Click on image to expand)

According to an article in the Times Colonist, Bedwell Harbour Hotel Ltd was fined $50,000 after destroying an extensive site on South Pender Island during construction of a swimming pool at Poet’s Cove Resort and Spa. Some of the ancient material, shells, human bones and other fragments were used to surface a road. The bones of 60 people were subsequently reburied.

To avoid similar desecration of their ancestral Marpole village site, in Vancouver, the Musqueam nation was forced to buy it for $4.8 million.

This purchase occurred after the Musqueam had exhausted all other avenues to protect the site from a proposed $100-million condominium development.

The local Coast Salish First Nations have been calling on all levels of government for years to stop the desecration of their burial islets, with no success.

Workers on Grace Islet
Workers on Grace Islet CourtesySean McIntyre, Reporter, Gulf Islands Driftwood

First Nations Elders are outraged and deeply hurt at the continued disrespect and desecration of their sacred sites and burial grounds.

In August 2013, the Archaeological Branch stated the best outcome would be for the Province to purchase it the site, but it did not have funds.

Local government representatives, such as the CRD Director, Islands Trust Trustees, MLA Gary Holman and MP Elizabeth May, have attempted to find an appropriate resolution and pool resources.

Steve Thomson, the Minister of Lands and Natural Resources, needs to intervene. Construction has to be stopped. The owner must be fairly compensated and a clear protocol established for when future sacred sites are in danger of being violated.

“[We] have taken these proponents to court to protect our sites when the province has failed to do so, we would rather not have to do this again and again. I recommend that we meet to set up greater participation and understanding of what kind of projects proceed or not and under what circumstances,” said Kathleen Johnnie, Lands Manager, Lyackson First Nation.

Anyone wishing to sign an online petition to preserve Grace Islet, which will be presented to the BC Legislature,  click here.

Top Photo: Grace Islet CourtesySean McIntyre, Reporter, Gulf Islands Driftwood

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