Law to shield cultural sites lacks teeth, natives say


Rob Shaw

Times Colonist

May 25, 2006


The dispute around aboriginal remains and caves on Bear Mountain has become the tip of a larger, provincial issue that has united many First Nations behind a common cause -- an overhaul of the provincial Heritage Conservation Act.

The act is supposed to protect cultural sites from developers and invoke penalties for destroying historical artifacts and remains. But First Nations, and the provincial NDP have roundly criticized the act as lacking effective enforcement procedures.

Representatives from Tseycum, Tsartlip, Songhees and Sooke First Nations travelled to the legislature last week to demand a meeting with government ministers to change the act, and on saving the caves and grave sites purported to be near Bear Mountain.

With the First Nations leaders sitting in the public gallery, the NDP criticized the government for not doing enough to help protect sacred sites.

The heritage regulations "have no teeth and are not adequately enforced," NDP First Nations critic Scott Fraser told the house. Aboriginal Minister Tom Christensen called the onslaught of criticism "grandstanding" by the opposition party.

Nonetheless, after a brief meeting, Christensen and Olga Ilich, whose Tourism Ministry encompasses the provincial archeological branch, agreed to sit with the First Nations groups June 1 to hear their concerns.

The groups have also come together to try and preserve grave sites and a cave system they say is threatened by development at Bear Mountain. The resort says the caves fall on private land outside Bear Mountain's boundaries, but has committed to doing an archeological assessment.

"I have to support my other fellow leaders about Bear Mountain," said Chief Vern Jacks, whose Tseycum nation has been one of the most outspoken to protect sacred sites after ancestral remains were carted off South Pender Island to make way for Poets Cove Seaside Resort and Spa in 2005.

"It's our midden and grave sites and [the provincial government] is not doing anything about it."

Damage to historical First Nations sites is an issue affecting aboriginal people across the province, said Tsartlip Chief Chris Tom.

"It's happening not just to Tseycum and Tsartlip, it's happening to all of us," he said.

 Times Colonist (Victoria) 2006