The discovery of ancestral human remains may seem like an exciting historical find for some people, but for First Nations watching the burial grounds of their ancestors being torn up, it is often anything but.
On Feb. 22, BC Hydro crews working to install underground services for the Haro development in Greater Victoria’s Cordova Bay neighbourhood revealed what have since been confirmed to be the ancestral human remains of one person.
The area, which is the traditional territory of the WSANEC and Lekwungen people, was a hub of Coast Salish life. Tsawout First Nation councillor Mavis Underwood said the area was once known for its richness of life and was where people would gather sea foods and harvest plants.
For centuries now, she said, as settlers have displaced First Nations off their traditional land, their artifacts have been unearthed and withheld. It’s only recently that governments began communicating with First Nations about the repatriation of stolen artifacts and consulting with them when new ones were found.
Between 1946 and 1960, as development of the area took hold, University of Victoria anthropologist Brian Thom said he believes over nine bodies were found. Now, with development once again underway, it’s possible more discoveries will be made.
“These are our ancestors,” Underwood said. “These are the people who inspired and birthed the generations that we now have here.” To have them dug up and displaced during development is offensive, she explained.
“It’s very sad and depressing to continually understand that the markers of our civilization are being taken off the land,” Underwood said. “It’s an act of extinguishment.”
While it’s become more common for developers and municipalities to have an Indigenous consultant on hand to help them navigate working on historical sites more respectfully, Underwood noted that consultant may not know the cultural practices of the First Nation being affected.
Some of these concerns are being addressed in the new Cordova Bay Local Area Plan, which is scheduled to go before Saanich council March 8. In it, for the first time ever, there is acknowledgement that Indigenous peoples lived there first.
“We have to come to terms with the fact that we’ve built this community right on top of an ancient Indigenous place,” Thom said.
The plan outlines the need to work closer with First Nations to address topics such as ancestral burial sites. It can be read at saanich.ca.
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