BC First Nation Fights to Save Ancient Village Site

May 9, 2012 Updated: April 6, 2013

 A B.C. First Nation is trying to preserve an ancient village and burial site that were part of what was once one of the largest pre-contact middens on Canada’s Pacific coast.

 The Musqueam Nation and supporters have been protesting around the clock at the site of a large condominium development underway at the Marpole Midden, an ancient village site located at the southern tip of Vancouver.

The Musqueam say the 4,000-year-old midden represents a profound and rare link to their history, and is a sacred place of rest for their ancestors that should not be disturbed.

“It’s one of the last—if not the last—connection the Musqueam people have to their ancestors,” says Wade Grant, a council member with the Musqueam band.

“It’s important to the Musqueam now because the city of Vancouver has grown up so rapidly around us, there are no other real sites that actually connect us to who we are.”

The remains of an adult and two infants were unearthed at the site earlier this year, and the Musqueam say this provides further proof that the area is a rich historical treasure trove that needs to be protected.

Many tools, artifacts, and weapons were found in the area when it was first developed, which led to its designation as a Canadian Heritage site in 1933. It is recognized as one of the largest ancient village sites in North America.

Work is currently on hold at the site, located on the 1300 block of S.W. Marine Drive. Grant says band members will continue to protest at the site until a resolution is reached that protects the area from further development.

“Community members have said they’re planning to stay here until a resolution is found that ensures the archeological remains remain intact and are not removed,” he says.

“They are taking a stand and they are very upset right now.”

Alternative Offer

The Musqueam have offered to swap the condo development land, which belongs to a private owner, for a parcel of their own land, while covering some of the costs.

Grant says both the City of Vancouver and the developer, Century Holdings Ltd., have been willing to negotiate with the band and seem open to the land-swap, but provincial approval is needed.

“The Provincial Government hasn’t had much communication with the Musqueam people,” he says.

“We’ve never heard directly from the premier. We have heard from the minister in charge, who says that the province has no role in this issue, which we disagree with.”

Brennan Clarke, public affairs officer for the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, says the government is working with the city and the Musqueam to find a solution.

“The site where the remains were found will not be disturbed until an archaeologist has completed intensive testing the vicinity to determine if there are additional remains in the area,” he wrote in an email, adding the province recently hired a consultant to work with the parties in finding a resolution.

Clarke also said the area has already been “heavily disturbed” and developed over the years, and that the province had issued permits to develop only a portion of the site.

He noted that by 1955, urban expansion had significantly altered the landscape of the Marpole Midden. The site was settled in the 1880s and has been redeveloped several times.

However, the portion slated for the proposed condo development remained undisturbed, according to an open letter from the Musqueam to Premier Christy Clark and Mayor Gregor Robertson.

City Supports Protection

City of Vancouver spokesperson Mairi Welman says that while burial sites and archeological sites fall under the jurisdiction of the provincial government, the city supports protecting the site.

“We support the rights of the Musqueam Nation to protect and respect a historical site,” she says. “It is our hope that the province takes a more assertive role in resolving this issue.”

The Musqueam are proposing building a park and memorial in the area of the site, in partnership with the province and city.

“Instead of a jumbled collection of rundown buildings and car lots, visitors would be greeted by a vision of an interpretative park … that would celebrate the Musqueam/Coast Salish heritage on whose land all of Metro Vancouver and surrounding cities are built,” the open letter says.

 Grant says he hopes the province will be more proactive and take the opportunity to work closely with the Musqueam to preserve the site.

“The province has really made strides in the last decade to create a new relationship with First Nations based on mutual respect and recognition,” he says.

“However, we felt that respect should also be passed on not only to us living today but to those who have come before us. … This is Canadian history and B.C. history that needs to be preserved and protected as we move forward.”