In what may be a first for a major Canadian city, the Musqueam Indian Band is rejoicing after the province of British Columbia announced it would not re-issue permits to develop a burial site at the 4,000-year old village of c’əsnaʔəm, in what is today Vancouver, where a developer unearthed human remains last winter.
The ancient village site saw months of protests, high-profile political endorsements and a blockade of the busy bridge connecting Vancouver to its international airport. But the private property’s developer has complained that proper procedures were not followed and is demanding compensation.
“I’m ecstatic,” Musqueam blockade spokesperson Cecilia Point told Indian Country Today Media Network. “It’s the first time the Crown has protected a First Nations burial site in B.C., as far as I’m aware. All around B.C. there are permits issued for dams destroying First Nations burial sites, for waterfront condos, for highways. We can’t allow the Crown to keep issuing permits for burial grounds. Musqueam weren’t even consulted when they were issued.”
But Century Group, the developer planning condominiums and an underground parkade on the site, also known as the Marpole Midden, said it is “considering all our options” in its quest for compensation.
“Nobody’s saying we’re not supporting the Musqueam,” spokesperson Bob Ransford told ICTMN. “The point is, if this site has heritage value and needs to be preserved, it’s privately owned. We’re saying they need to compensate the landowner for that…. We now understand there’s an interest in saving the site. All we want is to be compensated for the value of the property and the costs we’ve put into it.”
According to a statement released by the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, which dubbed the permit revocation its “final decision” on the matter, the “decision to allow the permits to expire after weeks of extensions is appropriate, given the lack of progress in the negotiations between the developer and the Musqueam Indian Band around the purchase of the property.” Under the decision, the landowner must “return Lots 4, 5 and 9 to their original conditions before the burial complex was discovered,” the statement said. It does not reference any form of compensation for the landowner or developer.
“I can’t think of another instance where they haven’t followed the procedures of the Heritage Conservation Act,” Ransford said. “Where [a site is] designated a heritage site, legislation lays out the requirement to compensate the landowner. If we can’t alter it in any way, we have no ability to use the property whatsoever. The government must compensate the landowner for the diminishment of value.”
And while Ransford said the decision sets a “dangerous precedent” for private property owners—“not just people in the development business, but anyone who owns private property”—Point retorted that destroying a cemetery for condos would be an even worse precedent.
“This is not a dangerous precedent, because most homeowners aren’t living on top of burial grounds,” she said. “It would be an even more dangerous precedent to allow this type of development to continue.”
Ransford said that it is simply a matter of the province following proper procedure—such as buying the property outright and donating the land to the Musqueam.
“When I worked as a developer, in another municipality where a site had archaeological potential, we found intact remains. They were removed by the First Nation, and the project proceeded,” Ransford said. “There are other cases where sites were deemed too rich with archaeological potential, the province deemed them archaeological heritage sites and then compensated the landowner; the province owns those properties now.”
Point and other blockaders point out that Musqueam elders, as well as allies in both aboriginal and non-aboriginal communities, defined the battle to protect c’əsnaʔəm, with support coming in from groups such as the B.C. Teachers Federation. Point received invitations to speak at synagogues and was interviewed on the radio. She said the Musqueam plan to buy the property and will convert it into a “green space” with signage to educate people about its historical significance.
Point added that one unforeseen benefit of the blockade was an increase cultural awareness of Musqueam traditions, both inside and outside their community. Day after day the protesters sat, she said, sans computers and television, which gave them time to interact with the elders who were the real drivers behind the blockade.
“Our elders came and sat every day, including one 92-year-old lady,” Point said. “They’d bring their cards and crib boards and tell us stories. Our cultural people came down and sang our songs. Now we know our songs and stories. That was a really great bonus that came out of this—our cultural enrichment.”
More on the Musqueam’s Battle:
Musqueam Battle to Protect Burial Grounds From Condo Developers in B.C.