Musqueam Battle to Protect Burial Grounds From Condo Developers in B.C.

Published in Indian Country Today Media Network | June 25, 2012 | Circulation: 300,000 unique monthly visitors

Musqueam blockaders hang a donated work of art on the construction fence, which has been covered with flags of First Nations across Canada offering support. Photo by David P. Ball

Members of Musqueam First Nation, battling to stop a condo development from being built on their ancient burial ground, are escalating the fight with blockades of public roads.

The 4,000-year-old Coast Salish village of c’əsnaʔəm saw escalating direct action in Vancouver, B.C., on May 31 when Musqueam First Nation members blocked a major bridge during rush hour to protest the condominiums, which are planned over the heritage site and burial ground.

The Arthur Laing Bridge blockade came days after Musqueam brought shovels and a mock permit to dig up the non-aboriginal Mountain View Cemetery—highlighting their outrage after three human remains were unearthed earlier this year.

“I always knew about the people here just from our oral history,” said blockade spokesperson Cecilia Point. “They were wiped out essentially by smallpox after contact, when visitors from the New World came. There’s always been burials here.

“This owner continues to make the argument that his family has owned it for 50 years. Well, 50 years ago Native people were not even allowed to purchase property…. The land was all given away or sold to private owners.”

The band proposed a land-swap deal with the developer and the city, offering alternative property and creating a heritage park on-site. The city offered land too, Point said, but the province stalled negotiations and won’t cooperate.

Mary Polak, Minister of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation, insisted that talks continue but said that ultimately jurisdiction is municipal, not provincial.

“No one would disagree that this is land that was inappropriately at some point in the past taken from First Nations,” Polak told reporters. “However, we find ourselves many thousands of years hence with another context that also has to be considered, that being that this is private land.

“It is private property and we must balance those interests,” he continued. “It’s disappointing that members of the Musqueam community chose to take that action. Certainly we believe that discussions around the table are much more likely to result in a resolution.”

Point and her sister, Mary, blocked construction before dawn on March 12 after learning that graves had been discovered. Musqueam council opposed suggestions that the bodies be removed.

“Our history is written in the earth,” Mary Point said. “Those archeological layers of the earth represent us. We didn’t have any rights for most of our time since colonization. We’re here to say, ‘That’s enough.’ The community has said that wherever our remains are found, they stay.”

The property, named a National Heritage Site in 1933, has been owned by the Hackett family for 50 years. A developer spokesperson said they will consider “serious” land-swap proposals of equal value.

“So far that’s only been talk, it’s never been put to paper,” said Bob Ransford, a spokesperson for Century Holdings Ltd. “We’ve heard those ideas; they’re worth considering. We want the impasse to end. If it’s not resolved in a way that respects all the interests, it jeopardizes our ongoing relationship with First Nations people, and jeopardizes the confidence of the real estate investment industry in B.C.”

He said he was surprised by province claims that the matter lies outside B.C. jurisdiction, since the permits for the archeological work being done on the site were issued by provincial authorities.

Musqueam Chief Ernest Campbell wrote that c’əsnaʔəm is a “site of continuous occupation of the Musqueam people since [the] time the first pyramids were built in Egypt…. The intact remains must remain where they are and not be further disturbed. They are the final resting places of our ancestors.”

Blockade founders Cecilia and Mary Point (left) are joined by Tshimshian nation member Charlotte Brooks and Dene nation member Tom Haldseese, among dozens holding vigil at the site. Photo by David P. Ball

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