This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
A long-fought battle over a tiny island came to a head last weekend when hundreds of protesters descended on the rock off Ganges, Salt Spring Island, B.C.
The protesters are concerned that the aboriginal burial cairns on Grace Islet, B.C., are being desecrated by the construction of a 3,000-square-foot home by an Edmonton man, Barry Slawsky.
“It’s already been destroyed,” says Chief Vern Jacks of the Tseycum First Nation, whose ancestry includes people who would have been buried in the area. “It’s awful.”
Slawsky is the owner of the now-out-of-business San Francisco Gifts, home of whoopee cushions, stink bombs, itching powder, and other fun novelties including lamps that have forged UL labels and catch fire. He did not respond to interview requests, but according to the developer building his home, he has owned the islet for 20 years.
“They say they own it, but who owned it before?” asked Chief Vern Jacks of the Tseycum First Nation. “Rich people get away with a lot of things.”
According to Chief Jacks, Slawsky has not responded to their requests for a meeting.
“We haven’t even seen that fellow around,” he told VICE.
The provincial archaeology branch also turned down interview requests, but spokesperson Greg Bethel released a statement, saying: “While it is widely believed that the rock cairns on Grace Islet are burial cairns, no remains have been observed at the site.”
That statement, which was reported by the CBC and the Victoria Times-Colonist, is actually false.
A human jawbone and a rib were discovered on the islet in 2006. Archaeologist Eric McLay then visited the island and found about 20 human bones among two different cairns.
“There’s no question that this is a burial ground,” McLay says.
A formal assessment later found 15 burial cairns. The provincial archaeological branch, which is mandated to balance the rights of landowners with those of First Nations, issued building permits that came with conditions that the construction did not disturb the site.
Then the site was disturbed. In 2012 a machine breached the buffer zone around one of the cairns, prompting backlash from local First Nations. The local First Nations reported violation to the RCMP, but were frustrated by the lack of response.
The owner was ordered to hire an archeological firm to sift through the disturbed soil, but they found nothing.
The house will be built on stilts to avoid the need to bulldoze the site, which McLay believes to be a way of getting around regulations more than a gesture of respect.
“Anyone who was serious about respecting Coast Salish culture would take the time to meet with them,” McLay says. “There’s so many burials on the island that it’s basically impossible to build.”
But the issue really appears to be about more than just disturbed soil.
For the 13 local First Nations, it’s about respect for the site itself, not the individual cairns. In Coast Salish culture, burial sites are places exclusively for the dead, separate from villages, which only specific caretakers could visit.
“No one would consider building a house on a [European-style] cemetery,” McLay says.
In fact, the BC Cremation, Interment and Funeral Services Act protects cemeteries from disturbances ranging from firing guns to littering. Unfortunately this does not extend to traditional First Nation burial sites, regardless of how obvious they may be.
The plan to build the house is still a go.
The main hope for the First Nations was that the province would buy the site from Slawsky and protect it, but the Archaeology Branch scuttled that option, saying there are too many sites like it around the province.
Chief Jacks says he is willing to accept compromises — but he just wants someone in the government to take the issue seriously.
“They pass the buck so much, by the time it gets back to me it’s thin as a dime.”
Photo via Christopher Roy