Bureaucratic 'logic,' political hypocrisy doom sacred sites
      Stephen Hume 
      Special to the Sun 

Friday, November 17, 2006

Nisga'a Chief of Chiefs Frank Calder fought all his long life to secure the 
respect he believed was due British Columbia's first nations.

Yet even as funeral rites to honour him were being planned in Victoria, members 
of the Songhees and Tsartlip first nations were protesting the provincially 
sanctioned desecration of what Coast Salish elders say they believe is an 
ancient sacred site of deep spiritual importance to them.

Dismantling of the site was approved by the same bureaucrats whose job it is to 
defend the province's cultural heritage.

I wrote in May about a secret limestone cave and subterranean lake and the 
ensuing conflict between the Bear Mountain resort and Coast Salish peoples who 
wanted the ancient site protected even if it happened to be on property that 
had become private.

"It doesn't matter that we don't have access to that cave," Tsartlip Chief 
Chris Tom says. "There is a presence there."

Elders say the cave was a sacred place used for bathing in spiritual cleansing 
rituals that are an important part of traditional Coast Salish religious 

"There are many [such] bathing pools still used today across Vancouver Island 
and B.C," says Eric McLay, president of the Archaeological Society of B.C. He 
also works with the neighbouring Hul'qumi'num First Nation just north of 

"Small limestone caves with pools of water inside -- these were powerful 
spiritual places that were remote from human life," McLay says. "For Coast 
Salish people these were very secret places that weren't talked about."

Those who had visited the cave, including one of B.C.'s leading speleologists, 
told me the lake was so clear it seemed almost invisible. This water, hidden in 
an underground grotto, was essential to the essence of the place.

"They've pumped out the water, which was sacred to us," Tom says.

I called Stan Hagen's department -- he's the cabinet minister responsible for 
heritage -- to ask the rationale. I was told that the site the Songhees and the 
Tsartlip said was sacred had to be destroyed to determine whether it deserved 
to be protected.

This is not a joke. It is not satire. It is not the script for a Monty Python 
skit. It's your provincial government in action.

In fairness, Justine Batten, director of the province's archeology branch, told 
me that a geologist concluded the cave was unstable and thus the archeology 
firm hired by the developer to do an assessment of the site couldn't work 
safely within the cave without taking off the roof.

I asked if, as the Songhees and Tsartlip ventured, the practice of destroying 
an archeological site in order to evaluate it didn't seem inherently 

Well, archeology and sacredness are not analogous, Batten replied.

That's not the only contradiction. The province's refusal to protect sites that 
are of spiritual value to first nations is at direct odds with federal policy 
that seeks to acknowledge aboriginal cultural landscapes, which Ottawa defines 
as places "valued by an aboriginal group (or groups) because of their long and 
complex relationship with that land. It expresses their unity with the natural 
and spiritual environment. It embodies their traditional knowledge of spirits, 
places, land uses, and ecology. Material remains of the association may be 
prominent, but will often be minimal or absent."

Sure sounds like the cave on Bear Mountain. Meanwhile, the subterranean lake 
has been drained. The cave that -- sacredness aside -- was graced with delicate 
limestone formations which made it an important geological feature, has been 
filled with old tires to "protect" the cave's floor when heavy equipment 
removed the cave's roof.

"Insane," says Cheryl Bryce, land manager of the Songhees. "A slap in the face 
to all first nations," says Tom.

And then there's Premier Gordon Campbell talking about building new 
relationships based on mutual respect.

Respect? The hypocrisy of this government beggars belief.

To be brutally frank, the fact that the rest of us permit such practices to be 
carried out repeatedly in our name by the people we elect can only speak to a 
deeply rooted collective contempt for the province's first nations that no 
amount of sanctimonious rhetoric can whitewash.


[Non-text portions of this message have been removed]

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