Malahat band, Mill Bay Marina deadlocked over burial payment

Peter Scheiler at the Mill Bay Marina site, prior to the remains of four people being discovered during the excavation of this tree. - Andrew Leong/file
Peter Scheiler at the Mill Bay Marina site, prior to the remains of four people being discovered during the excavation of this tree.
— image credit: Andrew Leong/file

A disagreement about the reburial of ancient remains and artifacts found at the Mill Bay Marina property has created friction between the site's developers and the neighbouring Malahat First Nation.

It's been about seven months since the remains of four people were discovered at the Handy Road site during excavation work. Since then, the count has grown to include nine people and a variety of ancient artifacts.

As reported previously, the property's developers partnered with an archeologist when work began on the site as part of their alteration permit granted by the province. This is standard procedure in areas were artifacts are likely to be found.

And when human remains were discovered, a full-scale archeological dig was commissioned and paid for by the developers.

Malahat Chief Michael Harry says since then, about half-a-dozen meetings have taken place between the relevant parties.

"And we had a number of elders at some of the meetings and we talked about the stories and how that site used to be an old village," Harry said on Tuesday.

Elder Randy Daniels explained that according to elder teachings, the area around Shawnigan Creek and Mill Bay was a Malahat fishing village that supplied coho salmon to First Nations people.

"So we find that our elders have spoken true for many years," said Daniels, "and it's been a sort of happy occasion for that, but at the same time it's a sad occasion because (the developers) have dug up the remains of our ancestors, and even moving them, to our people, is really unsacred. It's really harsh."

Malahat has requested $30,000 to cover the reburial costs. The developer is offering $10,000.

"(Developer) David Slang came to a meeting here in Malahat, in front of our elders, and said he wanted to do the right thing in this process," Harry said.

"That ($30,000) figure is what it would cost us to do the reburial, just the reburial, so it has nothing to do with the cost of time for our staff, our elders, and all the people who came to the meetings. We fed them every time they were here — those are our teachings and our ways — and it doesn't include the legal expenses we've been forced to incur with this process. We feel it's very reasonable we haven't gone for anything other than the cost of reburial."

But marina project spokesman Duane Shaw said the $10,000 donation is actually an unprecedented offer.

"We're under no legal obligation to do that but we felt it's a very good thing to do," he said.

"We entered into the archeological side of this development trying to really set a template for how developers should do this work with our First Nations neighbours. We've worked with the B.C. Archeology Branch and gave our archeologists full control over the dig. We followed complete process and protocol."

The developer is now waiting for Malahat's decision on whether to rebury the human remains on the Malahat reserve, or at another spot on the marina property that would be made into a permanent green space. They're hoping for a decision to be made by Aug. 2, otherwise reburying of the remains will happen on the property.

In the meantime, the remains are being stored in a container at the site.

"We don't think we're standing in the way of anything," Shaw said. "We feel we've simply asked to return the spirits back into the ground, and we've offered some money to do that and now it seems that although it wasn't an issue awhile ago, it's an issue now.

"It's a shame that money is getting in the way of what should be a quiet and dignified process."

But Harry pointed out that reburials aren't free.

"We've got nine human remains that need to be reburied, and one box of arrowheads and artifacts," the chief said. "We just want the remains to be treated with respect, and the cost for us to do the reburial.

"Our reburials and funeral services are a lot different from mainstream society."

"This is very sacred to any First Nation across Canada," Daniels added. "We don't take it lightly. We have spiritual leaders from the Cowichan, Saanich and Victoria areas who will assist us with this reburial. It's a very touching and sacred ceremony we will be using, so it's something I think our ancestors would have wanted."

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