Development of Musqueam burial grounds raises concern
// Katherine Alpen

The Musqueam Indian Band resides primarily on the Musqueam Indian Reserve, by the mouth of the Fraser River, just south of Marine Drive. A specific property near this area, but not located on the reserve, is known as the Marpole Midden. It is known to archaeologists all over Vancouver as an important heritage site.

However, this past January, Lan-Pro Holdings was given a permit to examine the land for further development, and discovered during their investigation (conducted by Stantec), intact burial remains. This discovery generated a lot of conversation and controversy about entitlement and preservation from the Musqueam Band.

The permits were issued, in spite of archaeological knowledge about the historical importance of the site, because of obvious previous disturbance of the land in question. There was also known development on the site since after it was uinhabited by First Nations. Brennan Clarke, from the Ministry of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations explains, “This site has seen significant disturbance over the years – the majority has been heavily disturbed. This site was settled in 1880s and has been redeveloped several times: in 1889, 1892 ,and 1995.”

The attempted development generated enough frustration to warrant a protest, which occurred on Mar. 12. Approximately 40 people showed up at the site to prevent further damage or displacement of the remains. There are many bureaucratic issues surrounding the land, however.

“The federal government doesn’t have jurisdiction over those lands,” says Aaron Wilson, a spokesperson for the protestors. “Neither does the city … because the B.C. government has power over property under the Land Title Act, and so they also have power over those sorts of archaeological sites.”

The Land Title Act registry keeps official legal record as well as private property ownership details. Originally, the plan was to remove the remains of the site so as to continue the archaeological investigation. However, the Musqueam representation desires the site to be left as is and to work alongside the city and provincial governments to reach a compromise.


All parties – the provincial government, the developers, the City of Vancouver, and Musqueam representatives – have met together now for several meetings, and parties have appeared willing to reach consensus via the talks. So far, they have had success reaching compromises on stop work orders for the construction site; in addition, the Musqueam protesters have agreed to not protest at the site anymore.

“The meetings [have been] successful in the sense that all the parties agreed to pause the digging on the site and look at possible solutions that would protect the site, while at the same time recognizing the investments of the owners and property builders … What that lead to was the agreement between Musqueam [representatives] and the developers to look at options and possible solutions in the next three weeks,” says Wilson.

At the core of the protest was the issuing of the permits that allowed development to be considered from the beginning. The body of government that administers the B.C. Heritage Act is also the body that administered the permits to possibly develop the land.

“What happens is the archaeology branch administers the B.C. Heritage Conservation Act, so what that act does is it, by default, protects a site like the village site. What the archaeology branch can do is they can issue permits for archaeological investigation and alteration … So what they did, is they issued these permits to the developer to hire archaeologists to go in and investigate the site, but in the process of investigating, they came across this intact burial,” he adds.

It’s not just the issuing of the permits, however, that has members of the Musqueam band protesting the site’s development. It’s the action towards the remains themselves.

He explains, “What sparked us community members to go down there and to try and protect the burial was that we heard that these archaeologists were going to go in and essentially remove the burial. Because they were saying, 'We need to carry on with our investigation into this site because there needs to be an investigation prior to development.’ So, we wanted to make sure that in the course of this investigation that those remains weren’t affected in any way. To us it’s a clear, clear no-brainer. It’s a historical site, recognized by the federal government since the 1930s.”


In 2003, on South Pender Island, an ancient Coast Salish village and burial ground were destroyed by Poet’s Cove Resort owners and developers. In 2005, the developer was charged for violating the 1996 Heritage Conservation Act. This was the first time that the provincial government had ever attempted to enforce the Act, and the trial is still ongoing.

The site on the Marpole Midden has been protected for 80 years, but more importantly, has been occupied by First Nations people for approximately 4,000 years. It has only been in the last century that the earth around the site has been altered and disturbed numerous times, though no remains were uncovered. Though the site is known archaeologically, the permits given out originally (those separate from those of the Ministry) came from the city, a body of governance not responsible for archaeological upkeep or representation.

“During their archaeological investigation [they] came across intact burials. For us, that reinforced our position that there is a lot there worth protecting,” explains Wilson.


Although the issue isn’t theirs alone, Wendy Stewart from the City of Vancouver’s Corporate Communications office shed some light on the city’s role in the issue.

“The city has a role to play, but the issues aren’t ours … that is, we give out permits for work to take place, but the issue on the site is the concerns around the burial ground and that is an issue for the provincial government. We issue permits within our regulations within the city of the Vancouver charter. The province of B.C., through the ministry of forests and resources … they have oversight of the legislation around the archaeological pieces.”

She confirmed that permits are given out without foreknowledge of archaeological territory, as this falls later onto provincial jurisdiction: “The permits that we issue here in the city say that they have to comply with all regulations, so if someone’s digging something and they find an archaeological kind of thing, then they have to follow provincial laws. We don’t have say over archaeology in Vancouver.”

A site development permit, as defined by the Archaeology Department’s website is: “a permit required to undertake development activities within the boundaries of a recorded archaeological site.”

The Ministry of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations is the department of the government in charge of issuing these permits for land alteration, which are different than the permits distributed by the city.

A press release from the Ministry of Forests, Land, and Natural Resources stated that “the province issued two permits for the project on Marpole Midden, both on Dec. 19, 2011. [The first was] a site alteration permit to Lan-Pro Holdings and Stantec, the archaeology consultant, and [the second was] a heritage investigation permit to Stantec. The city issued a development permit prior to the province issuing its permits.”

According to the Ministry’s press release, this past January was not the only time the Musqueam band had been considered in the planning: “In December 2008, the Province sent the draft management plan to the Musqueam Indian Band for comment, but did not receive any response from the Musqueam until the current permit application was referred to them.”


Concerning the previous damage to the land, Brennan Clarke, a public affairs officer for the Ministry, was confident on the Ministry’s stance. “This proposed site management plan would preserve half the site in perpetuity while still allowing for reasonable development of the site,” he says.

The Ministry has also expressed that there is no reason to fear the damaging of the historical site: “The Archaeology Branch is satisfied that the proposed site management plan balances the condition of the site (heavily disturbed) with the interests of the private land owner. The Province is [also] following the appropriate archaeological methodologies to preserve remains at the site.”

Wilson as well is hopeful and determined. He suggests that more than just Musqueam community members get involved as well. He points out that people could write letters to Minister Steve Thompson, who is the cabinet minister of the Forest, Land, and Natural Resources Department, which runs the archaeology branch that administers the B.C. Conservation Act.

“It’s my hope that they’re actually trying to help at this point,” he says. “I think that what happened in this situation was wrong and it’s my hope that if the negotiations go forward and everyone works together … the parties can find a solution that benefits everyone. Then we can look forward instead of looking backwards.”

//Katherine Alpen, writer
//Graphics by Katie So

Enjoy it? Share this on Facebook


© 2011 The Capilano Courier. phone: 604.984.4949 fax: 604.984.1787 email: