It’s not much to look at from the road.
Sealed off by fencing and tucked between two buildings along Southwest Marine Drive, the acre-sized lot of dirt near the on-ramp to the Arthur Laing Bridge is a common sight in the city: Another construction pit, another condo project.
Except, in this case, the blue and white tarpaulin-covered tents on the land aren’t there to protect crews from the elements; the shelters are the work of archaeologists hired by the property’s owners and the developer.
Their digging has proven significant.
The intact remains of an adult discovered in January and two infants in April—believed to be ancestors of the Musqueam Indian Band—lie underneath one of the tents in the southwest corner of the property.
Other bones, skulls and artifacts were also found on the site, according to the Musqueam, whose ancestors once occupied the lands later known as the Marpole Midden, a Canadian heritage site.
News of the discoveries has unearthed a sacred history for the band but it has also halted and jeopardized a multi-million-dollar five-storey condominium project.
Property owners Gary and Fran Hackett, a retired couple living in Saanich, are working with Century Holdings Ltd. to build 108 condos with an underground parkade.
The Hacketts have owned the property for more than 50 years and the family once operated a gas station and autobody business on the site.
“This is kind of their retirement nest egg—this is their ability to enjoy their retirement,” says Bob Ransford, a spokesman for the development team.
The frustration for the Hacketts and the developer, Ransford says, is that they abided by all city and provincial government regulations to proceed with the project.
“Nobody is saying the site didn’t have archaeological potential,” he says, acknowledging the history of the property. “But when you own a piece of land as a private owner, that [history] doesn’t automatically freeze your land from doing anything with it.”
The controversy and complexity of the dispute has put a stop to work on the site and prompted the provincial government to appoint a facilitator. The city is also involved in finding a solution while the Musqueam continue to bang drums, sing, pray and hand out leaflets in protest.
“We’ll be here until we get our land back,” says band member Cecilia Point, who was at the site Monday, where she and her sister Mary have rallied for 12 days.
The Musqueam, however, are not sitting idle and waiting for the property owner to simply turn over the land out of goodwill.
The band recognizes the dispute is not centred around a land claim. That’s why Musqueam is seeking a “business-like solution” that satisfies all parties.
That solution, the band believes, is a land swap involving the property owners, the provincial government and the city.
It goes like this: The Musqueam gives up land yet to be identified but promised to them under a separate agreement with the province. The Musqueam gives the city the rights to that land. The city then finds a piece of land for the property owners comparable to the Southwest Marine Drive site.
If it all works out, the Musqueam will turn the Southwest Marine Drive property into an interpretive park, a sketch of which hangs on the fencing at the site.
“There is an opportunity here for a solution that is equally dramatic as the failure and subsequent attempted destruction of the site would be,” wrote Musqueam Chief Ernest Campbell in an April 18 letter to Premier Christy Clark and Mayor Gregor Robertson. “It would be a catastrophe to the Musqueam and to all British Columbians and Canadians to have this important, world-class site further destroyed.”
Neither the provincial government nor the city would provide details this week on the nature of the negotiations. The city issued a statement to the Courier, saying “high-level discussions are underway with the parties and we’re not in a position to add anything more at this time.”
All parties met in March at city hall but Ransford says his clients have yet to hear back from the city on solutions. As for the Musqueam’s proposal, the development team is interested but needs to see something on paper.
“Parties other than us have to agree to make money change hands, value be established and all of that,” he says. “We’re waiting for that. If that is the solution—and it’s not the preferred solution because it’s a very complex solution and it also starts the clock ticking all over again—but if that’s the only solution, we’re willing to consider something like that.”
The added complexity for the development team is the fact more than 70 people pre-bought condominiums in the 108-unit project. The Hacketts and the developer also spent several million dollars on architectural drawings, preparing the site, marketing and other project costs.
“That also has to be factored into it, as well,” Ransford says.
Wade Grant, the economic development administrative coordinator for the Musqueam, is sympathetic to the development team’s frustration and the mounting costs.
“We recognize that they’re burning through money every day,” says Grant, standing outside the property Monday morning, while a member of the band pounded out songs on a drum. “We don’t want them to lose money but we don’t want them to remove the remains, either.”
He says the provincial government never should have issued the permits to proceed with construction on the site. It’s well known, he says, the lands were designated a heritage site in the 1930s. It’s also a fact human remains and artifacts were looted from the area decades ago, some ending up at the Royal College of Surgeons in England where they were destroyed in a Second World War bombing raid.
“What we’re saying is that we have very little connection left to our history and our heritage, and what little we do have we want it to remain on this site,” Grant says. “So the province really hasn’t really respected the history and the heritage of this site.”
The Courier requested an interview with Steve Thomson, the provincial minister of Forest, Lands and Natural Resource Operations to comment on the dispute.
Instead, the ministry replied to questions posed in an email by the Courier and included an answer to why permits were granted to the Hacketts and Century.
“These provincial permits were issued after carefully weighing the condition of the site with the interests of the private land owner and the quality of the proposed site management plan,” the ministry says. “The existing site management plan would preserve more than half the site in perpetuity while still allowing for reasonable development in the heavily disturbed portions of the site.”
The management plan is a sore point for the Musqueam, who described it as a “development plan” that includes removing remains from the site. The Courier was unable to get a copy of the plan prior to deadline.
The Musqueam recognize the site was disturbed in the past and buildings have been built and torn down on the property. But Grant says that history of disturbing the land, which has seen the addition of railroad tracks and a bus depot behind it, “doesn’t make it right to do in the future.”
The band has ensured that type of activity doesn’t happen at the far west end of the block of businesses that occupy the stretch of Southwest Marine Drive.
In 1991, Musqueam bought the former Fraser Arms hotel and recently renovated it into a liquor/cold beer and wine store. The band entered into a long-term lease with a third party to operate the business. A dollar store will soon open in the building.
Grant contends the band has no commercial redevelopment interests for the property and that it could one day be demolished to accommodate an extension of the proposed interpretive park; the band has not had discussions about this with any property owners whose businesses are located between the Hacketts’ property and the former Fraser Arms land.
“It’s a concept and long-term vision we’ve put forward at this point,” Grant says of the entire strip of businesses, which includes car dealerships and a theatre, being bought out by Musqueam to build a block-long park. “It’s something that we would look at later on. For now, we’re concentrating on [the Hacketts’] property.”
Adds Grant: “I want to make it clear that this wouldn’t be just a First Nations park, it would be a park for all Vancouverites and the public to share.”
When the Hacketts decided to redevelop their property, they knew full well it meant following the law outlined in permits and regulations regarding archaeological sites.
Regulations state the developer is required to have portions of the site dug up by archaeologists to investigate for any remnants of historical significance. It’s a common practice whenever development is proposed on land that is on the provincial record as an archaeological site.
Ransford says this is exactly what happened in 1998 when he worked for a developer building a townhouse complex in Tsawwassen’s Beach Grove.
Ancestral remains believed to belong to the Semiahmoo and Tsawwassen bands were recovered during construction. Archaeologists removed the remains without protest, he says.
Ransford knows of only two cases—one in Parksville (Craig Bay), the other in Mission (Hatzic Rock)—where the government bought out ancestral lands slated for development because of the archaeological significance of the sites.
The Musqueam case has caught the attention of Maureen Enser, the executive director of the Urban Development Institute, who is watching to see what unfolds.
The decision could set a precedent for any future situations where a private property owner wants to develop on land that has archaeological significance.
To avoid such disputes, Enser’s advice to the provincial government is to create a clear alternative for a property owner who may wish to reach a financial settlement instead of pursuing development of the land.
“It’s already been pegged as a heritage site,” she says of the Hacketts’ property. “So when something was going to happen on it, instead of issuing the permits, the province should have said, ‘Right, this is pegged as a heritage site and we need to negotiate with the property owner and purchase it now.’ That would save all this grief.”
Enser says the development community is looking to the province for leadership on this issue but doesn’t believe the Musqueam’s land swap proposal is the solution.
“That would not be a solution that would hold out in future situations,” she says. “What would be nice to come out of this is a clear definition for future cases that may arise that clearly defines how to handle the process by which you resolve this problem.”
For now, the peaceful protest continues—as does the support from First Nations in B.C. and across the country, who receive updates on the dispute via the band’s use of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.
The band also posted an online petition that had more than 600 signatures on Thursday. Area residents have donated food for band members and motorists driving by the site continue to honk in support.
The campaign got a big boost Tuesday afternoon when National Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo joined Grand Chief Stewart Philip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs and Regional Chief Jody Wilson-Raybould at the site.
“Standing strong is the legacy of our ancestors and we will not forsake their legacy in the face of development which seeks to destroy and disrespect our cultural heritage and our rights,” Atleo wrote in an open letter to the Musqueam. “The Assembly of First Nations supports the efforts of your leadership and will advocate strongly in support of today’s and future efforts.”
The provincial government acknowledged the importance of reaching a resolution but wouldn’t speculate on a timeline.
“What’s needed here is an agreement negotiated in patience and good faith,” says the ministry in the email to the Courier. “Any workable solution will need the support of all the affected parties.”