Learning from Grace Islet – Increasing heritage protection in BC

Mar 26, 2019 | 41-4, Bills, Blog, Governance, Video | 1 comment

There are massive gaps in the Heritage Conservation Act in British Columbia. These gaps were exposed in 2014 on Grace Islet near Salt Spring Island.

The land owner proposed to build a family vacation home on top of known archeological and grave sites. Despite the disapproval of Tsartlip First Nation, the former BC Liberal government allowed the project to proceed.

The Heritage Conservation Act let Indigenous people down.

When they were in opposition, the BC NDP called for the provincial government to update the Act. In addition, First Nations leaders have been working with government for years with little success to date.

Now in government, the BC NDP moved this amending legislation. It does not go far enough, fast enough, but it is a good start. More needs to be done, and I will continue to lean on this issue to ensure it is updated to protect Indigenous heritage and burial sites.


Well, thank you to the member for Chilliwack-Kent. That was a robust welcome from the members opposite. I appreciate it.

Thank you, Madam Speaker, for the opportunity to speak to Bill 14, the Heritage Conservation Amendment Act. This is an issue which is of specific importance to me, to my family and to my people, the WSÁNEĆ people. As many who have been following the news in this province may recognize, my family and my relatives and my extended relatives here on the south coast were involved in a very emotional and, at times, bitter situation on Grace Islet, off Saltspring Island. I think it was 2013-2014.

This is a situation in which gravesites that had been known for a very long time had a house constructed on them. It was deemed to be okay to take those grave middens and encase them in concrete and continue to build a private home, a vacation home directly overtop of the final resting place of our Coast Salish ancestors.

I don’t know of a time or a place in which that would be acceptable in this province, elsewhere. I don’t know that you could imagine doing a similar kind of act or a similar kind of thing at a cemetery, say, for example.

Double standards

It exposed, in this province, something that Indigenous people have known for a very long time — that there are two sets of standards in this province. It’s unfortunate, it’s sad and it’s incredibly frustrating. I know that my family members who were on the Tsartlip council at the time…. When the first application for permits came in and they bitterly opposed it, they were told that since there was only one of the dozens of First Nations actually opposing or that had actually submitted a response to the notification, there wasn’t sufficient enough evidence to show that people cared. So it proceeded.

We had a situation in which the government of British Columbia watched over, through their process, a situation in which known gravesites, known sacred places, were desecrated and were built on.

I don’t know who would want to live in a house overtop of a gravesite, but that was the case in this province, and it was one which was incredibly frustrating over the months and months and months that we were told that, simply, the minister could not get a mandate to act. The minister could not get the authority to actually act, to intervene in this desecration.

So I ask the members here today to simply imagine a scenario, just imagine a scenario where one of your ancestors, one of your grandparents’ graves…. It was being proposed that their gravesite was going to have a house built on it, and it was returned that the only thing that needed to happen in order for that to occur would be for those gravesites to be encased in concrete, and then you could go ahead and build right overtop of that. Again, I don’t think that there is a situation in which anybody would consider, in any way, this kind of behaviour or activity taking place overtop of a known cemetery.

When the member for Kelowna-Mission mentioned that the member for Saanich North and the Islands wanted to see the Cemetery Act changed, he does so with great knowledge. Because it was a conversation between him and I, that we had, where we talked about the need to provide greater protection for Indigenous heritage sites, for gravesites, for the final resting place of our ancestors and, indeed, for the sacred places and the artifacts — or items of cultural significance, as I’d prefer to call them.

Standing up for Grace Islet

That is something which has inspired me and propelled me, actually, into this place. It was my involvement in that Grace Islet story where I worked alongside the former member who held this seat, who represented the beautiful riding of Saanich North and the Islands, Gary Holman, who did a phenomenal job of standing up in this place during question period and asking questions of that minister.

It was that work both in this place and outside of this place, that I was able to do, that helped bring attention to this situation. So to see that this bill is coming forward and that aspects of the concern that was raised back then are being addressed in this bill, Bill 14…. For that, I raise my hands. I’m thankful to see the work is starting.

It’s important, I think, to just note that it’s a start, because the work on this bill is not complete. It’s been acknowledged in a briefing that we received that, yes, this is indeed just the first piece of work that can be done.

Going through the bill…. The sections that require the duty to report a discovery. The opportunity for the province to increase heritage protection. The very, very detailed ways that they can protect the heritage and do investigations to ensure that they’re able to take a look at the property much closer, to inspect it. The power to issue and amend permits. And then a whole host of ways for the minister to be able to have authority over those permits. Indeed, these are very important ways that this bill, the Heritage Conservation Act, has been strengthened with this amendment.

Entry and inspection. The fact that the minister can or the minister can ensure that somebody can — not meaning that the minister has go to the place and enter on to the premises and inspect, which I think is the current situation. A pretty busy person to be doing that kind of work. I think that the opportunity to be able to go in, enter the property and see what’s actually on-site is important. So this bill, in many respects, does strengthen the current legislation that we have in place.

Indigenous engagement

There are some aspects of this which I think it’s important to raise. It’s been noted here that First Nations communities or Indigenous communities have been engaged, and that First Nations have been engaged on this. I’ve become aware, though, that there has been some criticism with the process of this. I think that some frustration has been expressed that the First Nations Leadership Council was not engaged more thoroughly and, perhaps, maybe individual First Nations.

I think it’s important that, as we proceed, we honour the fact that Indigenous communities have established a leadership structure. It’s not a perfect leadership structure. There are a lot of challenges with it, and I think that would be acknowledged both from the perspective of this place but also from the perspective of an Indigenous person who has tried to navigate First Nations politics. It’s tough. But Indigenous people do have a leadership structure, and it’s important that it be fully engaged in these processes — that not just individual First Nations but the leadership that’s acknowledged and recognized by Indigenous people be honoured and be included in this.

It’s my understanding that they’re expressing disappointment and frustration that they have not been, in their terms, adequately consulted on this. I think further to that, though, it’s important to acknowledge that they also express the fact that they don’t necessarily disagree, as I’ve stated, with these amendments.

These are needed amendments, and I think that the First Nations communities will look at these amendments and generally, if not wholeheartedly, agree that these are good amendments. But they certainly don’t go far enough, nor do they go far enough fast enough, from my personal perspective.

Long time and coming

This is not a new process. This is not a process which has just started in the last 24 months. This is a process that has been underway with the provincial government now for many decades, indeed for more than a century. So 1865 was the first bill; 1867 was an amendment, 1925, 1960, 1977, the 1990s. Now we’re taking a look at it again.

I think back in the 1990s, they instituted section 4. Section 4 of the current act talks about agreements with First Nations. This is where First Nations in the province may enter into a formal agreement with respect to the conservation and protection of their heritage sites. This has been, I believe, in the act since the 1990s, this section 4.

In a 2012 document called the First Nations Heritage Conservation Action Plan, where the Indigenous leadership of the province pulled together the chiefs, they started their own process. They pulled together the First Nations communities, and they wanted to ask them: how is it that we can strengthen heritage conservation in this province? One of the aspects of this was to begin to enter into formal agreements with the province.

The provincial government, over the last 20 years, has disputed this process and has frustrated this process. Indeed, to this day, First Nations and Indigenous communities are still complaining that even though there’s a pilot project underway, we still have yet to achieve any kind of action on section 4, these agreements with First Nations.

I think that it’s important to acknowledge the long history in this province, and that’s perhaps why we have a Heritage Conservation Act, because this is, indeed, a long history. Well, it’s a very short long history, but it’s a long history between Indigenous peoples and the newcomers to this province, still relatively new.

Protecting ancestral remains

I think that it’s important that as we start to move towards the United Nation’s declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples, as we move towards the implementation of that, we understand within it that the relationship between First Nations, Indigenous people in this province is changing, and I think that we should be embracing that change. Many of the articles within the UNDRIP are articles that protect these very aspects that we’re talking about, the ancestral remains — just as everybody in this place wants to have the ancestral remains from their family lineages to be protected and honoured, to not be built on, to not be unnecessarily dug up and disturbed.

I understand that this province has a much, much longer history, and we’re going to find things, but it’s how we respond to the things that we find that I think is most important. It’s the things that we have found, the way that we behave when we have found them, that I think really sends a message to Indigenous people in this province. If we are going to say, “We acknowledge that place. We acknowledge that it’s sacred to you. We acknowledge that your ancestors are buried there, and we are going to allow you to build on it anyway,” that sends a message that no matter how many times we stand in this place and no matter how many times we stand outside this place, exactly what the relationship with Indigenous peoples means to the people within this place.

I stood in this House and I acknowledged and was very thankful. I raised my hand to the important investment that was made with respect to Indigenous languages. When we talk about reconciliation, I think that it’s important to understand there are a couple areas in which there was a definitive attempt to detach Indigenous people from their cultures in the past. One of those was through the removal of Indigenous language.

Another was through the removal of sacred objects that were part of that culture or the making illegal the sun dance on the prairies and in eastern Canada and the potlatch here on the west coast. By making those illegal and not allowing Indigenous people to openly associate with those important cultural rituals and ceremonies…. Very much the same, by the way, as the ceremony that undertakes the authority of this place — that I am standing here speaking to a speaker, that I’m standing here speaking to this House through a speaker. It’s very similar to the Indigenous culture that I come from with the WSÁNEĆ people — not too different.

I think that it’s important to acknowledge that the second step forward that we could be taking when it comes to reconciliation is through the protection of heritage sites and through the conservation and protection of important items of cultural significance. By returning these items, by making it much simpler for Indigenous people to protect their ancestors, packaging that with the important investments that both this government and the federal government have made to Indigenous languages, we start to make real, remarkable steps forward when it comes to reconciliation.

Still more work to do

These are the actions behind reconciliation, and so I’m happy to stand today to see that the work that was done at Grace Islet did indeed protect that island. I’m happy to stand today and proud to be the now member for Saanich North and the Islands, where we see one of the first pieces of work done on this important bill — this piece of legislation that is incredibly important for me and my family and my extended family, our relatives across the province.

I look forward to continuing to work with the minister, to ensure that some of the criticisms that have been made about the process in this can be repaired, because there still is much work to be done, as was mentioned by the member on the opposite side.

I think that there is an opportunity here, a very positive opportunity, for this government to embrace the action of reconciliation by partnering the substantive investments that it made in reconnecting Indigenous people with their languages with the repatriation and the protection, so that we’re not just going to museums and visiting — visiting — our items of cultural significance, but that they are back in our communities and that they have their rightful place within our ceremony, within our ritual and within our families like they’re always supposed to be.

So with that, I’m going to take my seat. I thank the minister for the work done so far. I look forward to the work yet to be done, and I’m happy to support Bill 14, this amendment to the Heritage Conservation Act. HÍSW̱ḴE SIÁM.

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1 Comment

  1. Robie Liscomb

    Thank you, Adam, for doing this and for your good words. It’s been a very long time coming. When we were standing up and speaking and writing and marching to protect Grace Islet, we were also looking forward to a time when the laws of BC would not only protect the cemeteries of settler-newcomers but also protect the burial grounds and important cultural sites of the people who met them when they arrived.


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