‘You would never do this to your ancestors,’ chief tells workers
By Sarah Petrescu, Victoria Times Colonist
The sharp roar of saws and a generator coming from a construction site on Grace Islet Tuesday morning was too much for Tseycum Chief Vern Jacks.
After paddling in the Cowichan Tribes big canoe over to the small island in Ganges Harbour on Saltspring Island, where a luxury home is being built over a First Nations burial ground, he stood on the shore and yelled to the workers: “You would never do this to your ancestors. Think about your kids, your family.”
About two dozen protesters came in canoes and kayaks, and some even swam. Cowichan elder Arvid Charlie said his community members have ancestors buried on the islet and referred to it as mim’kw’e’lu, which means gravesite in Hul’qumi’num.
Within a few minutes some of the protesters — including Jacks, Victoria Coun. Ben Isitt, NDP MLA Gary Holman and organizer Joe Akerman — decided to breach the gated construction site and go inside. The group followed, walking around the concrete foundation and burial cairns encased in plywood where builders were at work.
“I’m just a contractor. You’re being disrespectful doing this,” David Yager, of West Terra Projects, said to the small crowd, which included several children.
As tension rose, protesters held hands along the site and began to sing a rendition of Amazing Grace: “Amazing grace is sacred ground, washed by wind and sea, where ancestors are laid to rest for all eternity.”
The generator and a radio blaring Whitesnake rock songs were momentarily turned off.
Jacks thanked the workers for understanding. “We’ve wanted to do this for a long time,” he said. “This place means a lot to First Nations.”
Two RCMP officers soon arrived and began to photograph the protesters before speaking with them.
“I’m sorry that it came to this today, but all else has failed,” said Holman, addressing the officers.
“The question I have for the RCMP is, where were you when the law was broken here two years ago?” he asked, referring to construction that violated the site permits issued by the B.C. archeology branch.
Grace Islet was purchased in 1990 by Alberta businessman Barry Slawsky. His plans to build a retirement home were stalled by the discovery of ancient remains and burial cairns in 2006.
Despite the 2012 permit violation and increasing public concern about construction on the documented burial site, Slawsky has been given the go-ahead to continue building by the provincial body responsible for protecting ancient remains under the Heritage Act.
“I can’t condone trespassing, but have to point out this is what’s going to happen if government does nothing,” Holman later said. “… There’s a clear way out of this: Compensate the owner and protect the islet.”
Tuesday’s protest comes a few days after the province met with local chiefs, including Jacks, about the controversial islet. They plan to speak again on possible resolutions.