Purchase of islet saves B.C. First Nations burial site
Posted by Zig Zag
B.C. gov’t and partners acquire property from private owner who was building a home atop graves
The B.C. government announced Thursday it will buy the controversial Grace Islet property, where a luxury home was being built over a First Nations burial ground.
The purchase is in a partnership with First Nations and the Nature Conservancy of Canada.
“It can sometimes be challenging to balance the need to protect archeological sites while respecting private property rights. I want to thank all parties for agreeing to work together on a solution,” B.C. Forests Minister Steve Thomson said in a press release.
Construction on the property just off Saltspring Island was halted Dec. 18 as the government moved on its mandate to resolve the issue.
Negotiations are under way with Barry Slawsky, the Alberta businessman who owns the property. Details of the purchase price have not been released but the value of the property could be in the millions.
The latest B.C. Assessment of the property in July 2014 said its total value is $735,000. The land was valued at $590,000 and the buildings $145,000.
However, much of the home and foundation were constructed over the summer and fall months, encasing at least one known burial cairn and damaging another.
The burial site was first documented in the 1970s as part of a traditional First Nations village in Ganges Harbour. Exposed remains were discovered on the islet by kayakers in 2006. Archeologists later documented around 20 burial cairns and cultural features.
Concern over preserving the gravesite heated up as construction of the home began in 2012. In the years since, several First Nations, politicians from all levels of government and community members have banded together to protest the building of the home.
In the fall, several First Nations said they would pursue legal action to assert title rights on the land if the government did not intervene.
“Our hope was that they’d take this seriously and do something,” said Cowichan Tribes chief William Seymour.
In November, Seymour sent the government a notice of title claim, stating the Crown infringed on aboriginal title over an area occupied by First Nations, a known burial site and registered archeological site when it allowed private ownership. The notice said descendants of the First Nations were entitled to use and interests in the land.
However, Seymour was among several chiefs who agreed in December to give the government time to negotiate a solution with the landowner. He said he’s glad that action was finally taken and hopes the home will be dismantled and the gravesite preserved.
Gary Holman, MLA for Saanich North and the Islands, was among the politicians lobbying the government for the past three years to act on preserving Grace Islet. He said he was surprised by Thursday’s announcement.
“We’ve been beating our heads against the wall on this for months,” Holman said. “But this is great news. Congrats to Minister Thomson.”
Holman said many parties played a role in pressuring the government to act. A lively group of Saltspring Islanders and regional politicians such as Victoria councillor and Capital Regional District director Ben Isitt were among them.
“But it did seem, in the end, First Nations threatening to go to court made the difference,” he said, adding a ruling in favour of title rights on private land could have set a huge precedent.