Lower mainland commuters may wonder what all the commotion is about in South Vancouver. Along the sidewalk of the 1300-block of Southwest Marine Drive, members of the Musqueam First Nation have been maintaining a round-the-clock protest to halt the construction of a 5-storey residential and commercial project on a major ancient burial site and Musqueam village called c̓əsnaʔəm (commonly known as Marpole Midden). Two infant graves were recently unearthed by the excavating equipment in the construction zone and the Musqueam are determined to see that the rest of their ancestors will remain undisturbed.
An Ancient Village
The land in question, c̓əsnaʔəm, or Marpole Midden, lies within the traditional territory of the Musqueam Nation. The Musqueam, whose name means ‘People of the River Grass’, are a Coast Salish people who have lived in this area for thousands of years. The development of Vancouver and surrounding areas in the heart of Musqueam territory are very recent developments in the long and rich history of this people, but had a very significant impact on them like many other Indigenous nations who suffered from Canadian colonialism. While Vancouver exists as a metropolitan city today, the Musqueam now live on a very small portion of their traditional territory, known as the Musqueam Indian Reserve, located South of Marine Drive on the banks of the Fraser River.
The Marpole Midden was recognized as an important archaeological site more than 100 years ago. In 1933, it was recognized as a National Historic Site of Canada as c̓əsnaʔəm dates back 4,000 years ago, the time of the pyramids of Egypt, and the site contains priceless artifacts and undisturbed intact burials of Musqueam people. Regardless of the recognition that this is one of the most important native village and burial sites in Canada, construction and development have taken place in the area over the years. Today, while the Musqueam maintain Aboriginal rights and titles over the land, it is held in ‘fee simple’ by another party who is now developing the land.
The Current Fight
What took place with this current construction project is a classic example of the exclusion of Indigenous people from decisions and processes regarding their lands and resources and how Native people are continually put in the position to take to the streets to demand their rights.
On December 23, 2011, BC’s Archaeological Branch in the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Resources sent a letter to the Musqueam First Nation to inform them that the owner of the land wanted to apply for an archaeological permit. The band office was closed from December 23 to January 4 and the BC government approved the permit, stating the Musqueam ‘did not respond’ to the proposal. In January 2012, the archaeological work began. Soon after, an intact burial, undisturbed since it was placed there by Musqueam ancestors thousands of years ago, was unearthed.
On March 5, the Musqueam First Nation band council passed a motion calling on the developers to ‘cease and desist’ work on the project until a joint resolution could be found. Musqueam community members then took to the streets on March 12 to physically block the construction. After three days of negotiations, the Musqueam ended their peaceful demonstration once an interim agreement was reached between the Musqueam, the property developer, the City of Vancouver and the province of BC to ‘ensure the protection of the ancient burial site that was found in January and to enable negotiations to be held on the future of the site and putting in place long-term protection.’
However, the construction work and archaeological digging resumed. On April 18th, the Musqueam Indian Band issued an open letter to BC Premier Christy Clark and Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson stating their position and urging them to stop the construction project and desecration of ćəsna?əm. The Musqueam proposed a land swap, exchanging the condo development land for a valuable parcel of their land. They also offered to pay some of the costs associated with the project so that it would be of no cost to taxpayers.
The Musqueam’s goal is to turn the area of the Marpole Midden in to an interpretive park, open to the public, which would celebrate the Musqueam cultural heritage and history. While the province appointed a mediator, discussions moved slowly and the developer warned that he would continue to work on the site if a resolution wasn’t imminently found.
Continued construction work and excavations revealed two more intact burials; this time, those of two infants. In response, on the morning of May 3, more than 100 Musqueam community members and their supporters marched to the construction site and held a rally outside the fenced-off area where their ancestors and ancient village remain, to raise public awareness and demand an end to the continued destruction and desecration of their ancestors’ remains. On May 10, they went further by gathering more than 100 Musqueam nation members and supporters to demonstrate on the grounds of the BC Legislature to call the provincial government to action on the issue.
In a press statement released on May 10, Chief Ernest C. Campbell of the Musqueam Indian Band stated, “The present excavation and development on this burial site – especially following the recent discovery of intact infant burials – is unconscionable. These acts erase our culture and our identity. We have a proposal for an interpretive centre and park, funded by Musqueam, but the provincial government has yet to respond to our offer.”
BC’s Legal Right
While some people may argue ‘to get over it’ or that ‘most of the area has already been developed already, so what’s the big deal now?’, it’s important to look at the facts, the context that the province of BC operates within. As a fact, 97 percent of this province is un-ceded territory, which means that when this area was colonized and confederated, the Crown did not enter treaty negotiations with the majority of Indigenous nations whose traditional territories make up what is today the province of BC. So, according to the Royal Proclamation of 1763, the land does not legally belong to Canada, let alone one of its provinces. Regardless, the federal and provincial governments have made countless offensives on the sovereignty, land and resources of Indigenous nations here in this province. Indigenous people have met these offensives by defending themselves in whatever means they could; be it on the streets or in the courts.
So, what does this have to do with an ancient Musqueam village? While treaties are rare in this province, legal victories have recognized the Aboriginal rights and title to lands and resources, and have won First Nations the right to be consulted on developments on their traditional lands; on Crown lands, and even ‘fee simple,’ or private, lands. So, given this legal precedent, the Musqueam shouldn’t need to be put in a position to protest.
Stop the Desecration of , c̓əsnaʔəm!
As the BC Liberal government continues to delay this process, the preservation of c̓əsnaʔəm is still at risk. The Musqueam Nation has received support from other First Nations and many other organizations who are echoing their just demands. President of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, recently said, “To ignore the Musqueam’s offer, is to challenge not only the determination of Musqueam’s position to protect the entire site but a challenge to all First Nations in BC.”
This needs to be a challenge met by all people living in this province, and especially those living in urban centres like the lower mainland. This fight is a wake-up call that Indigenous land issues don’t just take place in the countryside, but are issues that affect us everywhere. Supporters are encouraged to visit the protest site on the 1300-block of Southwest Marine Drive and to sign the on-line petition at http://www.petitiononlinecanada.com/petition/stop-the-immediate-destruction-of-indigenous-burial-sites/943
This fight is to protect traditional land. Saving Musqueam history is protecting their people’s future.
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