The Heritage Conservation Act and the Destruction of Sacred Sites

This week, BC New Democrat MLA Maurine Karagianis (Esquimalt-Royal Roads) introduced legislation that seeks to amend the Heritage Conservation Act by strengthening provisions for First Nations’ sacred cultural sites and objects. This is the fourth time Karagianis has introduced this private member’s bill (read the 2009/10 version here). According to the NDP’s press release, amendments

…include a process by which First Nations can request a temporary protection order when people find a heritage site, object or remains. The amendments would also create a First Nations Heritage Protection Program which would provide funding to local governments so that they could protect sacred sites in their communities.

The destruction and desecration of First Nation’s cultural sites is ongoing in BC and across turtle island. Karagianis points to recent attempts to destroy Penelakut First Nation burials at Grace Islet as evidence for the need to strengthen provincial protections. This is a current example, but only one of many.

Many residents of the south coast may be more familiar with the Musqueam’s steadfast efforts in 2012 to protect the resting place of some of their ancestors from condo development. After months of protest, and keeping watch over their ancestor’s remains, the Musqueam ‘won’ the ability to buy the land – land that they have never ceded.

Sacred cultural sites are an inconvenient truth that trouble Settler claims to Indigenous territories. Weak provisions and enforcement of the Heritage Conservation Act facilitate ongoing colonialism and Settler claims to “private” property. The destruction of sacred sites not only facilitates the expansion of Settler property, it also erases the material past of Indigenous Peoples. This is something I first addressed in my MA thesis (Kelly Black, 2011; School of Canadian Studies, Carleton University).

Below, I provide two sections of that thesis (with some edits) that detail the ongoing destruction of Hul’qumi’num cultural sites in the Cowichan Valley (Vancouver Island). Although Karagianis’ amendments have the potential to provide real protections for sacred sites, much greater efforts will be needed if we are to address colonial property relations.

– Kelly Black (Twitter: @K_elly_B )

The protection of sacred sites is one desired outcome of a completed treaty process (HTG, 2007, p. 32). While the long history of the Bamberton development in Mill Bay represents a protracted struggle over a sacred site, there are innumerable accounts of Settler infringement on and destruction of sacred sites since the modern treaty process began in 1993. These transgressions represent an assault on Hul’qumi’num property and demonstrate the expansion of a Settler property regime. 

Brian Thom notes that property relations among the Coast Salish are organised “with each other by residence in ancestral communities, or descent from ancestors connected to particular places, drawing authority from their association of historical and mythical privileges handed down from the ancestors and learned by engaging in respectful spirit relations with the non-human persons in the land (Thom, 2005, p. 30).” The Hul’qumi’num Treaty Group (HTG) states:”Our oral history and customary laws teach us that we are not of the land, we are the land and its resources. Our connection to our territory is based on our ongoing history of use, occupancy, and customary laws of land ownership and is deeply rooted in our cultural fabric (HTG, 2007, p. 8; emphasis in original).” This history of use by the Hul’qumi’num is manifested to Settlers in the uncovering of cultural sites and archaeological evidence. As the HTG winds its way through the treaty process, middens and burial sites continue to be uncovered and are often destroyed through the spread of Settler property. In addition, sacred sites for traditional ceremonies are increasingly in danger from development and the sale of private property, mostly within the E&N grant (Thom, 2005, p. 154).

In Cowichan, particularly along the coast, the archaeological evidence of ancient Hul’qumi’num residency is overwhelming (HTG, 2006, p. 13). In spite of this, cultural sites are often threatened or disrespected by the Settler enactment of property. In July 1997, the Crofton pulp mill hired a contractor to clean up a popular picnic site for mill employees in advance of Canada Day celebrations. In clearing the site, the worker “levelled” a Halalt First Nation burial mound, a site registered and protected by the provincial Heritage Conservation Act (Abell, 1997, July 27). This disturbance shocked Halalt members who, at the time, were working with the mill owner to rebury remains at the site taken by an archaeological team ten years prior. Despite legal protections from the province, the burial site was again disturbed in the summer of 2001 when mill workers using heavy equipment unearthed bones at the picnic site (Costa, 2001, September 2).

Recurring events at this Halalt burial site point to the continued violence associated with enacting Settler property. These events also highlight the failure of provincial measures designed to protect Indigenous sites. The Crofton mill is ‘private property’ and, as such, not subject to inclusion in ongoing treaty negotiations.

When Settlers first began to arrive in Hul’qumi’num territory, middens and burial sites were often the first encounter Settlers had with the land. On July, 27th 1859, a group of 18 Settlers arrived on Salt Spring Island by way of a schooner:

The schooner landed them on a sandy beach two miles south [from their lots], the site of a major [Indigenous] clam harvesting and processing site…When the Penelakut and Lamalcha returned [from the sockeye fishery] to their villages on Kuper Island there was anger over the unannounced arrival of [white people] in their midst (Arnett, 1999, p. 76).

This invasion of Settlers at Syuhe’mun (Walker’s Hook on Salt Spring Island), facilitated by J.D. Pemberton (colonial surveyor) and the colonial government, demonstrates the lack of recognition given to even the most obvious signs of Indigenous property. Nearly 145 years later, similar circumstances unfolded at the same site.

In early 2004, the provincial Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection issued a permit to an aquaculture company to dispose of fish farm waste water on Walker’s Hook (Martens, 2004, February 15). After being issued the permit, the aquaculture company conducted an archeological assessment which revealed evidence of the remains of as many as 700 people. In a notice of appeal to the provincial Environmental Appeal Board, Penelakut elders stated their opposition to the permit, noting that “…the effluent will flow over their ancestors’ bodies (Martens, 2004, February 15).” Non-Indigenous residents of Salt Spring Island were also concerned by the proposed hatchery, voicing concern through the community group Salt Spring Island Residents for Responsible Land Use. In a letter to the provincial bureaucrat responsible for approving proposed amendments to the hatchery’s permit, the community organisation expressed the need for the hatchery to “sincerely and actively consult with the HTG…prior to being granted the Permit Amendment or implementing any new plan” (Salt Spring Island Residents for Responsible Land Use, 2006, November 22). However, this was only the third of four points against the hatchery. In a similar scenario to Bamberton, Settler involvement in the conflict was chiefly derived from concern over its impact to the Settler property regime:

We are requesting that a Public Information Meeting be held…In particular, we would like to see a map showing the route of the proposed outfall pipe…Some neighbouring property owners have expressed concern about their water supply…Walker Hook beach is a public beach. With the outfall pipe [from the hatchery] going above ground, and the concerns of increased effluent discharge, how will the beach be impacted? (Salt Spring Island Residents for Responsible Land Use, 2006, November 22).

This letter demonstrates a failure to acknowledge the role Settlers play in erasing Indigenous property. Although the letter demands Indigenous consultation, it also refers to the beach as “public,” thereby simultaneously acknowledging and rejecting HTG claims. If the beach is “public”, than what further input would the HTG possibly have should the hatchery’s permit be denied? The letter points to a Settler entitlement to property – public and private notions of property are deployed when necessary. Contrasted with the Settlers of 1859 who stumbled across this sacred site to claim property, more recent events at Walker’s Hook reveal the ongoing and insistent nature of Settler claims to property, and denote the complex nature of relationships that make up the colonial nature of property relations in Hul’qumi’num territory.

Settler perspectives, like any group identity, should not be considered to be homogeneous. However, in her research on Euro-Canadian and Indigenous relations, Elizabeth Furniss rightly argues that “some discourses can be considered dominant by virtue of their ubiquity in the social landscape of Euro-Canadian life….” (1999, p. 104). Much like the examples provided above, the following discussion brings attention to Settler views on property relations and provides evidence of particular discourses around property that I consider dominant within Settler communities on southern Vancouver Island.

In a May 1993 letter to The Citizen titled “Native pride isn’t evident” the writer contrasts the “mess “ of Native “yards” with middle-class Settler neighbourhoods in Cowichan: “But, there is ‘pride’ in our city and municipality. Take a tour of Centennial Heights just off Government Street or through The Properties, or Lakeview, to name just a few…Clean up your land first, before you ask anyone to Enter Your World and Share Your Pride! (Malbon, 1993, May 23).” This Settler puts forward perhaps the most basic of British colonial understandings of property; that land must be improved and maintained through labour. In support of this letter, a second letter writer declared, “Well correct me if I’m wrong but is it only a white standard to be clean and respect the property you live on by keeping it clean? I think not! (Wight, 1993, June 6).” Although these letters demonstrate a Euro-centric understanding of property, they also reveal links to opinions voiced by colonial Settlers. These links, as explored below, demonstrate a continuity between colonial and contemporary concepts of property.

Between 2005 and 2007, the Halalt First Nation undertook a public information campaign regarding the effects of traffic along Chemainus Road which passes through their reserve. Concerned with high levels of industrial traffic and the safety of its community, the Halalt erected signs and set-up information pickets, educating drivers and encouraging them to obey the speed limit through the reserve (Hills, 2007, June 27). However, while still reeling from the destruction of ancient burial sites at the Crofton mill, the Halalt were again confronted with cultural destruction. In 2006, fourteen wooden crosses at a Halalt cemetery were pulled out of the ground and inverted, the third time in two months that grave markers at the cemetery had been vandalised (Poss, 2006, March 1). Chief Bert Thomas feared the desecration was linked directly to the Halalt’s campaign around Chemainus Road (Poss, 2006, March 1). Such abhorrent actions represent the backlash Indigenous communities can face when they confront the Settler property regime.

The desecration of the Halalt cemetery represents an extreme action against Indigenous property. however, it is also rejected through a. The Halalt’s confrontation of Settler property elicited a response rooted in a discourse of equal rights and ‘common sense’ understandings of property:

After reading the articles regarding the “no trespassing” signs put up by the Halalt First Nation because the use of the road by motorists is “reducing the quality of their lives,” I shake my head and ask this question: Is it the motorists who cause such poorly cared for properties strewn with every kind of garbage?…Yes, the Government of Canada may not have asked for permission to take their land but this is the year 2005. There should not be any special treatment of any particular race of people. Everyone is capable of working and paying taxes (Sjostrom, 2005, December 25).

The language used in the above quote insists that Settler ways of seeing property are the only way. The writer’s dismissal of historic injustices also puts forward the idea that there is no link between colonial dispossession and contemporary property relations. This seems to support Carol Rose, who argues that these “culture-conflict stories…must reinforce the point that seeing property is an act of imagination (Rose, 1994, p. 296).” In rejecting, or rather imagining, the past, the writer also ensures that the history of Halalt struggles over property are ignored. For the Halalt, the actions undertaken on Chemainus Road are linked to similar events over 100 years before. In 1877 the Joint Indian Reserve Commission noted that the Halalt,

had to a small extent been guilty of the very serious offence of fencing in as their own, a portion of land legally owned or occupied by a white man. The deliberate overstepping the boundaries of other men’s lands, and enclosing portions with some vague notion of holding these portions by force, is a practice on the part of the Indians which should be checked at any cost. (Sproat, quoted in: Egan, 2009, p. 214).

Whereas the Halalt have been challenging Settler claims since they were first made, a discourse of Settler property deems the Halalt version of property illegitimate and is dismissed as a demand for “special treatment.” The notion that Indigenous peoples receive special treatment and special rights from the government is a common discourse among Settlers. In 1998, David Black (no relation to the author), owner of the Cowichan News Leader and Pictorial newspapers expressed concern over the settlement of treaties in British Columbia:

Setting up communistic territories…is completely discredited as a workable system because most human beings need the motivation of private property. They need to be able to build their own wealth rather than just belong to a collective that has wealth…No living apart based on race. No special rights for some (Black, 1998, October 28; emphasis added).

Black’s comments present the idea of private property as so normal that it should be desired by all as an obvious solution to the issue of “special rights” for Indigenous peoples. Indeed, the politics of ‘equal rights’ is central to property relations and is a notion often espoused in liberal democracies (Blomley & Pratt, 2001, p. 156). For the Joint Indian Reserve Commissioners and the Settlers they represented, any concession of land or resource rights given to the Indian population was often viewed as generosity that could result in an unfair advantage over white Settlers (see: Fisher, 1977, p. 200; Harris, 2002, p. 107-8). When Sproat‘s comments are contrasted with Black’s editorial and the 2005 letter to the editor we are able to see the manifestation of the colonial property regime in contemporary Settler society. Over the last two centuries the Settler view of property has been entrenched as normal; requests from Indigenous peoples to see it otherwise have been decried as counter to liberal notions of ‘equality.’ Given the above examples, the colonial nature of property relations and its impacts on Settler-Indigenous relations is made clear.