The Province of British Columbia has a rich and complex history of ignoring issues with First Nations. Sadly, we all pay for these purposeful omissions at later time. Such is the case of Grace Islet in Salt Spring Island’s Ganges Harbour, where a luxury home is being built on a First Nations cemetery.
Despite opposition from Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal groups, the requisite permits have been approved and construction has begun. Steve Thomson, Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, recently published an op-ed called “The search for balance at Grace Islet” (Times Colonist – July 23, 2014) defending his position to allow development over the First Nations burial site.
Now let’s be clear. This site is a well-documented archaeological site with many burial cairns. (A European equivalent to a First Nations burial cairn would be a marble grave-marker). Today the cairns are covered with plywood boxes to protect them from the construction. The boxes are spray painted with a happy face and loaded down with building debris, tools and scrap materials. This makes a mockery of the dead.
Minister Thomson’s op-ed acknowledges that the site is a “known archaeology site,” and, at the same time is a “privately-owned and local government zoned” residential property. The owner has water, sewer and building permits from the CRD and a site alteration permit from the provincial Archaeology Branch.
But the site is not a cemetery, the Minister notes, because “it has not been registered as a cemetery by the owner.”
Furthermore, according to the Minister, many levels of government had the authority to give the green light to the project yet apparently no level of government has the authority to stop it. This ambiguity has resulted in finger pointing with no one taking responsibility.
Minister Thomson states in a letter to me that his government is trying to balance competing interests between the property owner and Aboriginal people, and that they understand the sensitive nature of the matter. However, he goes on to say that the property owner has met all legal requirements and no one has the power to stop him. The scales, I suggest, are dangerously out of balance.
Minister Thomson’s op-ed is like salt in a wound. He says that he believes “these kinds of disputes are better left to good, open dialogue and communications by the involved parties,” yet he refuses to speak directly with the people involved in this issue. The irony is that the most direct communication the Minister has offered regarding Grace Islet is his op-ed in the newspaper.
On June 13, 2014, he replied to my request for a meeting, stating that his assistant would “be in touch directly.”
Six weeks later on July 25 – a couple of days after Minister Thomson’s op-ed was published, I received the following email from his office:
"Thank you for your letter and request to meet with Minister Thomson. At this time Minister has a fully committed schedule and is not able to meet with you. Please continue to forward any correspondence or meeting requests to FLNR.Minister@gov.bc.ca."
Minister Thomson, Premier Christy Clark and the rest of the provincial cabinet: we expect better than this, especially when you have called for “more direct discussions among the stakeholders on this issue”.
The Minister is right on one account, however; these are “highly sensitive matters.” Therefore, he should not leave communication on this issue to the media.
If the Minister truly understood the gravity of this issue, he would have empowered his Ministry to work with all other levels of government to ensure the situation was settled equitably and that similar situations do not develop in the future.
The Minister’s response, political bafflegab, may have worked in the past, but the relationship between the Province and First Nations has changed significantly in the last month, and it is not in the provincial interest to pretend otherwise.
First Nations, provincial and local government officials, and regional leaders all want “direct discussions” on Grace Islet. So here is my unqualified response: Minister Thomson, we are ready to meet with you.