A group of Tsawout First Nation members are upset at construction work on reserve land that they believe is a former burial ground. The members report there are plans to move the topsoil, extracted as part of the project, to local farms.
The land is privately owned by a band councillor, who is in the process of having an RV Park built on the site.
With echos of the recent logging dispute on Saturna Island, band members are asking if reserve land is being used for profit instead of being preserved. They also accuse councillors of passing resolutions supporting their own projects, without the wider scrutiny of full community consultation.
Vanessa Claxton remembers elders telling her the stones were burial markers, and she worries that as well as being a desecration of her relatives’ graves, the topsoil could pose a threat to human health.
“People could be eating their strawberries grown from soil with remains in,” she says.
Tsawout councillor Mavis Underwood says the project site is private and she and council are unaware of the development, with no plans to intervene.
Chief and council have been engaged in a number of projects to raise revenue for community initiatives, and Underwood notes that many in the community believe commercial projects stimulate much needed economic development.
Due to the Tsawout maintaining an oral tradition, it is difficult to say with any certainty if the site is a burial ground.
An archaeological survey was conducted by Millennia Research Ltd. on Jan. 18, 2018, at the behest of the company seeking to build the RV Park. It rated part of the project site “archaeologically high,” and determined “the project has sufficient archaeological potential to require an Archaeological Impact Assessment (AIA).” Four petroforms, often culturally significant stacks of rocks and sometimes grave markers, were observed by an archaeologist within the project boundary or the mapped access road. Piles of seashells were found in and around the petroforms and the proximity of a natural spring, a valuable resource in the past, suggested the petroforms could hold historical significance. However, the report states that although old, covered by moss and with three trees growing from them, the petroforms are probably not quite old enough to be burial cairns.
Claxton disagrees and says she has compiled testimony from community members familiar with the site. Some elders report there used to be houses on the land and the owners were buried next to the structures when they died.
“Our ceremonial and cultural knowledge keeper [community historian] said that it was my great-great-grandmother and her family’s gravesite by one of the houses that is no longer there,” she says.
The archaeology report doesn’t make reference to these possible graves but focuses on the petroforms. “Although the petroform is not believed to be a burial cairn at this time, its nature and purpose remain unknown and therefore the archaeological potential is considered high until it has been investigated.”
The report concluded by advising further hand testing, partial excavations and avoiding damaging or removing one of the petroforms.
Soil deposits found to contain human remains off-reserve are subject to scrutiny from a number of government agencies. Reserve land is more difficult to oversee, with a host of municipal, provincial and federal agencies all saying they don’t have the power to investigate.
Indigenous Services Canada, confirmed that Tsawout First Nation reserve land was transferred from Canada to the band when it began operating under its own First Nation Land Management land code on May 29, 2007. Legally, contractors are obliged to stop work and make a report to police if they find human remains.
Further, the department states, “If there is high potential for the discovery for archaeological remains, often a secondary survey is undertaken immediately before the soil is disturbed or an archaeological professional is on site supervising the operation.”
Millennia Research Ltd. confirmed they were not engaged to complete any further assessments, and declined to comment on their report’s contents or if Tsawout members told them about gravesites in the interviews they conducted.
The owners of the RV park who commissioned the survey said they had followed all legal procedures, were employing an on-site archaeologist at their own expense throughout the building process and had received band council approval.
What happened to the petroforms is unclear, as recent video shot by Shari Underwood shows a barren work site, cleared of trees, vegetation and features.