Today, Capital Regional District directors will consider a proposal to acquire Grace Islet in Ganges Harbour off Saltspring Island for the public purpose of protecting the First Nations burial ground.
While the primary obligation to protect First Nations cultural heritage sites resides with the provincial government, it has become sadly apparent that the provincial government and Forests Minister Steve Thomson have no intention of exercising this responsibility, notwithstanding requests from WSÁNE´C (Saanich Nation) and the six nations in the Hul’qumi’num Treaty Group, the Islands Trust and the CRD board to suspend the site-alteration permit and halt construction of a private residence on the burial island.
In the absence of provincial leadership, I believe it is ethically responsible and legally appropriate for the CRD board to exercise its authority under the B.C. Expropriation Act and acquire title to Grace Islet.
The Expropriation Act empowers local governments to acquire property for public purposes, with compensation provided to the owner. These powers have been exercised hundreds of times in British Columbia, for the construction of roads, highways, bridges, schools and other public infrastructure. I believe the creation of a burial park to protect identified human remains, burial cairns and ecological features is a legitimate public purpose.
If CRD directors decide to act, an expropriation notice would be served on the registered owner, along with a fair-market appraisal of the value of the property. The owner can appeal the valuation in accordance with procedures established in the legislation. This ensures that the private property interest is protected, at the same time that First Nations cultural interests and the public interest are upheld.
Once an expropriation notice has been issued, no construction can continue that is contrary to the public purpose for which the land is being expropriated: a burial park. Construction of building foundations or other work would have to stop, in accordance with Section 22 of the act, which prohibits the owner or any person acting on their behalf from doing anything that “will harm the condition of the land.”
The long-term remediation, management and stewardship of Grace Islet is a matter to be considered by the WSÁNE´C and Hul’qumi’num nations and non-aboriginal governments, respecting the cultural and ecological values of the islet. But a first step in allowing the process of site remediation and stewardship to begin is to transfer ownership from the current registered owner, who has refused to allow First Nations elders to visit the burial site and honour their ancestors.
Moving forward with the CRD’s acquisition of Grace Islet would not prevent the provincial government from belatedly deciding to do the right thing and acquire the island itself, as authorized in section 20 of the Heritage Conservation Act. Indeed, ethical leadership by CRD directors this week might help to convince the premier and her minister that protection of First Nations burial sites matters — and that we all have a responsibility to do our part.
Ben Isitt is a Victoria city councillor and director on the Capital Regional District board.