As the first peoples who have been on this earth since time immemorial there are many things that we would like to be protected such as sacred, cultural and heritage sites and objects. How often have we seen front page news stories about a First Nations burial site being disturbed such as we seen at Poet’s Cove or Departure Bay. Or a sacred site being desecrated as we seen with Bear Mountain.
As First Nations people we have known for a long time that the laws do not protect what is important to us. The Heritage Conservation Act http://www.bclaws.ca/EPLibraries/bclaws_new/document/ID/freeside/00_96187_01
is not adequate and what may be there to help us such as s. 4 agreements have never been used.
The Act say that its “purpose is to encourage and facilitate the protection and conservation of heritage property in British Columbia.” The Act then goes into different provisions that allow sites that are protected to be issued a permit that can “damage, or desecrate a site or object. So in reality, there is no protection if the government in its “wisdom” feels that the site is not important enough to be preserved and that development should occur. What is invaluable to us may be dispensable by a government that has totally different values.
In 2007 the Joint working group on First Nations Heritage Conservation JWG was formed by the First Nations Leadership Council and the Province to “explore options and develop recommendations to improve the protection, management and conservation of First Nations cultural and heritage sites in the spirit of the New Relationship and the Transformative Change Accord. At the time, I was on the Leadership Council and was the political lead and chair of this working group and we started working on these issues that plagued First Nations everywhere and there were many ‘hot spot’ issues throughout the province. Despite many efforts, we never seemed to get anywhere in dealing with these issues.
The one issue that sticks in my mind is the Bear Mountain issue. I was on the Leadership Council at the time and we visited the site where the cave had been desecrated with the permission of the government. (see picture above)You could feel the pain of the First Nations people in attendance and the powerful feeling of the environment around us that bore witness of the destruction of something so important. The alteration permit was allowed because there was no physical evidence of the use of the site. For many First Nations people, you do not leave signs of use at a sacred site to protect its pristine condition and out of the deepest of respect. Policies did not allow for pristine sites and something that was so sacred for so many generations would never be there for the use of future generations. It was such a waste. It renewed our commitment as leaders to change laws and policies in this province that would allow such desecration. The Heritage Conservation Act provides automatic protection to archaeological sites, but does not address the interests of the First Nations for sites with sacred/spiritual and cultural values.
In November 2009, the Leadership Council and some of the members of the First Nations Working group met with then Minister Kevin Krueger to determine whether the Government was still committed to making changes as we had not made progress in many months. In December 2009, Ministry or Tourism, Culture and the Arts(MTCA) became the lead ministry on the Joint Working Group on First Nations Heritage Conservation (JWG). The Minister was so committed he appointed his Assistant Deputy Minister to work with the group and this has been a great asset to the progress of the working group.
Members include representatives from the First Nations Leadership Council, the Ministry of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation, and MTCA, represented primarily by the Archaeology Branch.
The Working group is looking to revising policies that do not work well for First Nations in the short term so that there can be more immediate solutions to some of the problems First Nations are facing. The Working Group is also looking at other possible solutions or mechanisms and in the long term want to amend the Heritage Conservation Act to make it workable for First Nations. Amendments to the Act will be a lengthy process with many consultations with First Nations and many other interest groups.
I mentioned earlier that there is a section 4 in the Heritage Conservation act that allows First Nations to enter into Agreements with BC regarding the conservation and protection of heritage sites and objects. This would mean things that are not currently protected by the Heritage Conservation Act could be protected through an agreement and that alteration permits could not be given for all the sites and objects that would be an appendix to the agreement. This section has been in the act for many years and despite First Nations efforts the province has refused to use this section. BC has a legal opinion that states that the section that allows the Minister to delegate authority to First Nations the ability to issue alteration permits and inspection and investigative permits is illegal because the Minister cannot delegate his authority. The working group is trying to resolve the impasse of this section as it would resolve many issues and allow First Nations to manage their own sites and objects. The delegation issue is only one part of section 4 and agreements could be reached leaving out that portion until it is resolved. First Nations have sought legal opinions as well that do not agree with the province’s interpretation. It makes you wonder why the government would put in a provision in an act that would be illegal.
The work of the Heritage Conservation working group is important and extensive and needs direction from the First Nations in BC. The Leadership Council has called together First Nations in this province to put together action Plans and strategies for Justice, Fisheries, Health, Education, Economic development, Forestry, Energy and Mines, Children and Families and it is now time for such a plan for Heritage Conservation-protecting what is important to us.
The Leadership Council, Working Group and Nesika Culture and Heritage Society are hosting a conference on February 22 and 23, 2011 at the Vancouver Marriot Centre. Further Information can be found at http://www.ubcic.bc.ca/News_Releases/UBCICEvent02221101.htm. You can register on line and make comments about what you would like to get out of the forum. There will be a draft action plan that will be circulated and we will be asking people to comment on it, add to it and make it a plan of action that can guide the Leadership Council and the Working Group in the work that is occurring.
As a working group we would like to know what policies and procedures of the archaeological branch that you have issues with or the Heritage Conservation Act itself. What would you like to see changed. Has your community been able to work with the province in protecting a special site? Would you share that with us? Best Practices are always helpful for other communities. Your input is invaluable and if you cannot attend, we hope that you can communicate with us by phone, e mail, or fax with your ideas. This is too important of an area to not have everyone’s input. Look forward to seeing you there!
On another front, watching the devastation of the political parties in BC has all of wondering what will happen and where things will end up. Looking at the candidates for the Liberal party and the person who could be our next Premier is an interesting speculation. We know that Mike DeJong and George Abbott have had extensive involvement with First Nations issues, but not so with Christy Clark, Kevin Falcon and Moira Stillwell.
With the departure of Carole James in the NDP, it will be the same kind of assessment, who will be the best leader that will work with First Nations to complete treaties, implement the New Relationship and all the major court cases we have won through the years.
One thing that we need to watch closely is the HST issue. Liberal candidates seem ready to ditch the tax but so far, no one has said how BC will pay back the $1.6 billion dollars to the Federal Government or the costs of switching back to the GST and PST. The province has in the past bought property for First Nations where there were issues with burial sites like in the case of Snuneymuxw First Nation and Departure Bay. Lately, with the BC government in such a tight financial bind, that has not been possible. Compounding their financial woes by paying back the federal government means that may not be an option in the future. The issue with private property and burial and other heritage sites is a big one and finding solutions on how to deal with this is a difficult one and an area we also need to discuss.