Behind a chain-link fence on a dirt lot in Marpole, a southerly neighbourhood outside the consciousness of most Vancouverites, the earthly remains of two babies lay under a makeshift tent of blue and white tarpaulin. Nearby, a blue tarp, ruffled and less dignified, covers the remains of an unknown adult of undisclosed gender.
Outside the fence last Friday morning, four adults-one man, three women, in jeans and sweatshirts- kept vigil. On lawn chairs while eating McDonald's french fries. "I think there's a lot of precedent-setting stuff, here," said Cecilia Point, spokesperson for the Musqueam Indian Band. She may be right.
Point and others have remained on guard since January after an archeologist discovered the human remains. It was a mandated dig, paid for by property owners Fran and Gary Hackett who plan to build a 108-condo complex on what was once (long before the condo boom) a First Nations dumping ground. That makes it historic. And according to provincial regulation, if you want to develop historic land, you must first till the soil for artifacts. Unfortunately for the Hacketts, their archeologist struck bone.
It's the latest scene in Canada's longest running movie. We've seen it before. A desire to develop, an impassioned opposition. A convoluted process involving multiple levels of government. Big money, wild rhetoric. An eventual handshake betweens chiefs and cabinet ministers. Until the next deal goes down.
To everyone's credit, the protests, while sometimes illegal, rarely turn violent. Exceptions such as the Oka crisis in Quebec in 1990, when the Mohawk Nation stared down a golf course expansion, burn images into the public mind.
In Marpole, there's plenty of posturing. But here are the facts.
The Hackett family has owned and paid taxes on the property for 50 years. Despite the property's heritage status, city hall and the province approved the condo project, providing all requisite permits. After the archeological discovery, the province halted the project and the Musqueam tabled a complex land swap, which includes a Musqueam park on the site.
Negotiations hang in limbo, awaiting the province's next move. It's a murky situation with lots of backroom talks. Even the bones remain shrouded in mystery.
According to a spokesperson for the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, the only evidence of Musqueam lineage is "based on context." History books and such. There's been no lab analysis, no carbon dating. The archeologist found the bones then ran for the phone. They remain untouched under blue tarpaulin.
"I know they'd be ancestors of ours because my great-grandfather used to live here and he lived to be around 100," said Point, sweeping her hand over the fenced-in property. "He told us about these people. It was passed down through our oral history that this was the front lines when other tribes came invading."
Invading tribes mean dead bodies. Moreover, nomadic members of many First Nations frequented dumping grounds (also known as middens) around the region. Europeans appeared on North America's west coast in the 1500s and finally reached the Pacific Northwest in the 18th century. Despite a misleading media narrative, no one knows who owns the Marpole bones. The Musqueam, the only Indian band with inhabited reserve land in Vancouver, have a strong case. But it's no slamdunk.
Meanwhile, according to Courier reporter Mike Howell, last Monday Mayor Gregor Robertson visited the site, greeted protestors and (literally) beat the drum of solidarity. Robertson later tweeted his support: "Honoured to support Musqueam nation to protect @cusnaum heritage site. B.C. gov't must enable land swap, respect ancestors."
Really? Just like that? Despite the many sensitivities involved (including the rights and expectations of a private land owner) and the potential for unrest, Robertson chooses sides. Cecilia Point vows to remain at the site "until we get our land back." Is that Robertson's position? What happens if the protest turns violent? How many tweets would it take to calm things down?
The appearance of politicians such as Robertson reinforces the obvious. Like other land disputes across Canada, the Marpole affair isn't about buried remains and arrowheads. Not really. The entire city of Vancouver sits on former First Nations land. It's about a lost culture and the realities of colonialism. No "interpretive park" in Marpole will restore Coast Salish supremacy in the New World. No cheap political stunt or mayoral tweet will rewind the hands of time.
But Point is right about one thing. It may be "precedent-setting." If consummated, a land swap marshalled by Victoria involving private property would establish a cottage industry for every First Nations land advisory board from Prophet River to Tsawwassen.
Back in Marpole, if you narrow your gaze to obscure the overpass and plug your ears to the traffic din, you can almost see the Musqueam, with their gillnets and deerskin, pulling salmon from the river under a bright yellow sun. But that's ancient history. Time immemorial. Sad but true. Buried and gone.