By Roy L Hales
Grace Islet’s Salvation is in sight. Steve Thomson, Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource, announced the Province is partnering with local First Nations and the Nature Conservancy of Canada to preserve the First Nations burial site. Though negotiations with the owner have not concluded, many are are celebrating a victory.
A Burial Place
Grace Islet is a narrow finger of land that juts into Ganges’ harbour on Salt Spring Island. It becomes an island at high tide. The modern village was once a First Nation’s settlement and Grace Islet was a burial place where 16 burial cairns were identified in 1966. Though it is designated an archaeological site, Grace was subsequently zoned for residential development and Barry Slawsky purchased it for a vacation home in 1990. Salt Spring Island residents and First Nations joined together to defend the burial islet.
The dispute escalated last June, after British Columbia’s Archaeology Branch gave Slawsky permission to build a house providing he put it on stilts that go over the burial cairns. The defenders of Grace Islet responded with a blockade. Ignoring the stipulation that he use stilts, Slawsky poured a cement foundation. Chief Don Tom, of Tsartlip First Nations, posted a Stop Work Order. Slawsky responded by starting a legal action against five of the defenders for briefly occupying his Islet. This did not intimidate them. Slawsky dropped his suit.
Grace Islet’s Salvation Is In Sight
The breakthrough appears to have followed in the wake of Cowichan Tribes Chief William Seymour’s notice that the Crown infringed on aboriginal title over an area occupied by First Nations. They were not consulted before their burial grounds were zoned residential, have never consented to this and received no benefit. If the suit had proceeded, it could have set a dangerous precedent. This is the first time aboriginal title has been claimed on private property. There has been no construction since December 18, 2014.
“While it’s unfortunate that it took the threat of court action to get the Liberal government to change their mind and finally act, today’s announcement of a purchase is very good news for First Nations and the general public who have supported the preservation of the burial grounds on the Islet,” said Salt Spring Island MLA Gary Holman. “I thank Minister Steve Thompson and the provincial government for finally stepping in. Because building over the ancient site was allowed to begin, my hope is that over time, the site can be restored to its previous condition.”
The government press release states the partnership has reached a “framework agreement” with the owner and “If final negotiations close successfully, the Nature Conservancy of Canada, local First Nations, other interested parties and the Province will work together on a remediation and future management plan for the islet.”
Our Ancestors Can Rest In Peace
“Our ancestors can now rest in peace on Grace Islet. Tseycum appreciates the hard work of the Province, the Nature Conservancy of Canada and the landowner in resolving the situation,” said Vern Jacks, Chief, Tseycum First Nation.
“I’m glad we were able to respectfully reach an agreement through negotiations. The partnership that was created to see this through means a great deal to our people in the view that our chiefs and the government were able to unite and reach a resolution. Most importantly, the ancestors at our sacred burial sites are able to rest peacefully as a result of our collective perseverance,” said Chief William Seymour.
“Success!!! We lift our hands to ALL who gave their time and energy to help government and the public to come to a better understanding of what respect and reconciliation means for all people in this world. Cultural understanding and respect for our ancestors is not to be compromised- ever!” Salt Spring resident Joe Akerman wrote on the Grace Islet Facebook page.
The Right Decision
“This is the right decision,” stated Adam Olsen, Interim Leader of the BC Green Party. “It demonstrates respect for the dignity and history of the Coast Salish peoples. I would like to thank the many people who worked so hard to achieve this result, including Gary Holman, MLA for Saanich North and the Islands. It must be said, however, that the process that led to this decision was too long, lacked true dialogue and consultation, and caused a great deal of grief and anguish. I hope that this decision represents the government’s commitment to a more respectful and cooperative process for resolving future disputes with First Nations.”
“This is fantastic news,” said Elizabeth May, MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands and Leader of the Green Party of Canada. “Credit goes to the Coast Salish Nations and to Salt Spring Island community members who refused to allow this outrage to become yesterday’s news, but who persevered to ensure that this sacred ground would be protected.”
“The Nature Conservancy of Canada is honoured to be part of a solution that will see the protection and conservation of the significant cultural heritage and ecological values on Grace Islet. We look forward to working with the Province and First Nations on restoring and stewarding this very special place,” said Linda Hannah, B.C. Regional vice-president, Nature Conservancy of Canada
It Can Sometimes Be Challenging
“It can sometimes be challenging to balance the need to protect archaeological sites while respecting private property rights. I want to thank all parties for agreeing to work together on a solution,” said Steve Thomson, Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations.
This “balancing” would not be necessary if BC revised its Cemetery Act. This document descends from the colonial era, when First Nations people were regarded as savages. Is this a mentality we want to carry forward in the 21st century? If First Nations graves were given the same protection as European graves, the situation on Grace Islet would never have occurred.