This haunted place

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We were sitting on a grassy hill, directly above an old dock on the west side of Kuper Island. Some local kids were taking turns diving from the dock into the ocean, and an uncommonly warm wind was scudding across Stuart Channel from the general direction of Chemainus on Vancouver Island. The wind roiled the surface of Telegraph Harbour, below us, and it churned the waves around Foster Point, on nearby Thetis Island, just to the northwest.

You can use words and place names like these to situate a story, to describe what can be seen from a particular hill on a particular island, on a summer afternoon. But I was passing the time there with Florence James, a 57-year-old Kuper Island elder, and what she saw and what she named comes out of the musical language of Hul'qumi'num, and from a different kind of cartography altogether, deeply rooted in meaning, story, and memory.

"All this is Yuxwula'us," James said. She was careful to articulate the word slowly for me. Yuxwula'us. It was the name of the village of longhouses that once stood on the beach below us, and it is a word that comes from a place so deep in antiquity that it has forged the meanings of the word for "eagles" with the word for "opening" and the name of a chief. The word also has a story embedded within it, about a woman who was turned into an eagle but resumed human form after saving a baby from drowning.

"Over there is S'a'thus," James said, pointing vaguely north. The word means "facing", or "the direction of", and it came to be used as a general term for Thetis Island. Between Kuper and Thetis, along the narrow and shallow body of water commonly called Telegraph Harbour, there is St'q'in, which is the term for a muddy, swampy area. Farther eastward, near Clam Bay, there is Lhulut, which means "bailing place", coming from the practice of bailing canoes before they were put in on the shore there.

Rounding Kuper Island and heading south, you will come to the old village of Puneluxutth', which is usually rendered in English as Penelakut. The root of the word Puneluxutth' is the verb buried. In the old days, the village longhouses were strung out along the beach, below the low bluff where the houses are now, and the longhouses once looked as though they were buried in the sand. The word also evokes a story about the first people on Kuper Island, somewhere around the beginning of time, who lived in a half-buried house between two giant drift logs on the beach.

From there, if you cross the top of Trincomali Channel, there was a village at the very tip of Galiano Island. The place is called Th'hwumqsun, which means, more or less, a point of land. James remembers the place fondly. It's the place she was raised, and it was there that James was found to be blessed, or cursed, with the gift of memory. James says she can clearly remember a time when she was nine months old and she burned her left hand when she picked up a hot iron from the cook stove in her family's dirt-floored single-room house at Th'hwumqsun.

James can continue like this, all the way through the Gulf Islands and across the San Juan Islands to Bellingham Bay, which is T'emhwi'qsun, and in the narrative cartography that unfolds within Hul'qumi'num, places are situated in story, and there are sea serpents and ogresses and dwarfs. There are stories about tunnels between islands, and a place where you can still see the footprints of a giant that transformed the world and separated people from animals a long time ago.

There is also a deep mark on the landscape that situates the way these things have been all but obliterated from memory. It is an old and overgrown cement staircase, and we were sitting at the very top of it that windy afternoon, on that grassy hill. The stairs once led straight up from the dock to the front doors of a grand-looking brick building that was known as the Kuper Island Indian Residential School. Florence James's parents refused to send her there, which is another reason why her memory is still intact. She was one of the lucky ones.

After the school closed in the mid-1970s, the building was torn into pieces. Except for the staircase, there is no physical evidence that it ever even existed. "But there are so many bad memories," James said. "Those are the memories that are embedded in the people now."

On the day Florence James and I sat at the top of those stairs, there was a headline on the front page of the Vancouver Sun: "Give natives a seat at premiers' conference, Campbell urges". It was from the opening of the Council of the Federation conference in Banff, where B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell told reporters: "I can tell you, if I was a First Nations person, I would not be satisfied with a graduation rate which was 30 per cent below what the general public's is. I would not be satisfied with the health determinants which are substantially below what the general public's is…That's not right in Canada. It's not right for us to ignore it anymore."

By those words, Campbell quite adequately situated the Kuper Island Indian Reserve within the dystopian archipelago of the Gulf Islands.

When Statistics Canada recently completed a "community well-being" index to measure such social and economic indicators as health, income, employment, and so on, all of the Gulf Islands were found within the top 25 percent of B.C. communities. All except Kuper Island, that is. Of 486 communities surveyed in British Columbia, Kuper ranked 12th from last place.

The median annual income among British Columbians is $22,095, but for Kuper Islanders it's $8,112, and it's mostly from welfare. One in four adults on the island is unemployed, more than three times the provincial rate. More than half of the Kuper Island residents between the ages of 19 and 34 never finished high school, more than three times the rate for British Columbians in that age range.

More tourists now visit the Gulf Islands every year than visit Prince Edward Island, but they don't go to Kuper. There is a ferry that stops at the island, but there are no Buddhist retreat centres for wealthy Vancouverites, no faux-rustic bed-and-breakfast getaways, no bustling farmers' markets, no seaside cafés, no inns, no gas stations, and no marinas. There are roughly 300 people who live on Kuper Island. There aren't even any stores there.

You certainly can't blame Premier Campbell for all this. But over the past five years, the Gulf Islands have become precisely the kind of deregulated, deracinated, and dehistoricized communities that Campbell's Liberals set out to make of the entire province when they came to power in June 2001.

The Islands Trust, which was established to "preserve and protect" the unique ecology and landscapes of the Gulf Islands, is a laughingstock. The real-estate industry has been given the run of the place. Working families have been relegated to serve as tenant labour to build houses for millionaires or to wait on tables at swish restaurants. The Hul'qumi'num and Saanich people who have made these islands their home for the past 7,000 years, and whose village sites and graveyards can be found in almost every bay and cove, have been left to retreat further back into their few Native-reserve enclaves, like Kuper Island.

During his first term, Campbell presided over a government that was as virulently antagonistic to aboriginal rights as any in British Columbia's history. But it is also true that, lately, Campbell appears to have had a change of heart. It may be a recognition of the enormous and outrageously costly failure of the B.C. treaty process. It may be that Campbell has only lately considered the spectre of massive civil unrest erupting among B.C.'s aboriginal communities just in time for the 2010 Olympics.

Whatever the cause, a historic reversal in provincial policy is underway, and it is set out explicitly in the "New Relationship" agreement Campbell hammered together with B.C.'s First Nations leaders last April. The document contains a solemn pledge to "eliminate the gap in standards of living" between aboriginal and settler communities. It confirms the constitutional protection of aboriginal self-government rights. It vows to facilitate the assertion of aboriginal title, and it recognizes the "economic component" of aboriginal title. It vows to clear the way for the assertion of aboriginal jurisdiction over traditional lands and resources.

Kuper Islanders today include the remnants of people from Thetis Island, Tent Island, Galiano Island, and the small community of Tsussie, on Vancouver Island, that the federal government amalgamated into the Penelakut Indian Band early in the 20th century. They are among about 6,000 Hul'qumi'num people from various tribes of islanders, including the Cowichan, Chemainus, Halalt, and Lyackson who have been trying to wrest a treaty from the B.C. government for several years now.

Of all B.C.'s First Nations, none are more anxious than the Hul'qumi'num to know whether or not Campbell's "new relationship" really means anything. Kuper Islanders are particularly interested in Campbell's "new relationship" promises relating to the "restoration of habitats" to revive access to traditional foods and medicines.

"Everything is so dead and polluted now," 61-year-old Kuper Island elder Augie Sylvester explained one day. "And so much is gone."

We were walking along the beach at Puneluxutth', and there was nothing of the impressive architecture that Indian Land Commissioner Gilbert Malcolm Sproat marvelled at in 1877, when 15 longhouses appeared from a distance to be "one long house, 3 or 400 yards in length". All that's left of them is a single house post, rising up out of a tangle of blackberries and crab apple. There's an old-style canoe shed on the beach, and on the bluff above there's a grand and cavernous old longhouse for guardian-spirit dances. But apart from that, there is only a dispirited- looking neighbourhood of a few standard-issue Indian Affairs houses, and a crumbling church.

"And it hurts to say it," Sylvester said, "but a lot of the food we would eat, we don't even know how to cook it anymore."

As late as the 1920s, canoes were putting out from this beach, their hulls smoothed silent with porpoise oil, to hunt Steller sea lions at Porlier Pass. As recently as the 1970s, there were several salmon trollers and cod boats among the Kuper Islanders. There are three boats on the island now. They rarely go fishing because there's so little left to catch.

So much is gone, but Sylvester could still describe the lost cartography of sea life in the islands. He was another lucky one. He got out of the Kuper school when he was in Grade 3, expelled for punching a teacher.

Here, there was prawn, he said. On the other side, there was crab. There, blue mussels and butter clams and basket cockles. There were abalone and sea urchin, and sea cucumbers, and big skates, lingcod, rockfish, chinook salmon, and coho salmon. There were surf scoters and loons and sea ducks, and on it went like this, through the narrow gaps and passes between the islands, the long channels and deep bays, and all the way out to Tumbo Island, within shouting distance of the Canada-U.S. border. Sylvester used to go there to harvest sea lettuce with his grandfather.

Somewhere along the way, something happened to the water, Sylvester said. It used to be a lot colder in the winter. And then came the Crofton pulp mill, and the sawmills and all the sewer outfalls, and the shellfish became contaminated with toxins. There were places where the herring spawned thick on the beaches, and then those places became barren. The commercial fishermen and the sports fishermen had their day, and then all those abundances withered into remnants, and on the islands you can't hunt deer or grouse in the old places, Sylvester said. It's all private property.

It's like what happened to Shmelu, he said, just as we came to the place on the beach he'd wanted to show me, to explain. Sylvester ducked under the limbs of an overhanging wild cherry tree. There was a huge, round boulder. "Here's the boy who got turned into a rock," he said.

When he was very young, Shmelu was sent to a shaman, and the shaman told him to reach into a box to see what he would pull out. Shmelu pulled out a halibut bone. The shaman sent him with a halibut fishermen to learn the skills involved in halibut fishing, but Shmelu couldn't catch any halibut. So the shaman made him reach into the box again, and he pulled out a sea-urchin spine. Shmelu came home without any sea urchins. On it went until there was nothing left in the box.

The shaman turned Shmelu into a rock but left him with the power to control the winds that would drive away the enemies of the people. In the old days, people would come to the rock to stroke it and speak to it, but the enemies kept coming, and there were sicknesses that ate away at the people, and there was the residential school and its obliteration of the old cartography, and then welfare, and alcohol.

"They're even coming after our graves now," Sylvester said.

By that, Sylvester meant the rapid and unprecedented destruction of those places in the Gulf Islands that show up on provincial government maps as "archaeological sites" but show up differently in the old cartography, because in the Hul'qumi'num tradition there is no such thing as an "archaeological site". Instead, there are haunted places, and cemeteries, and material evidences of the elaborate, continuing obligations between the living and the dead. But whatever we call them, they are disappearing all the same, and disappearing quickly.

Partly, it's because the Islands Trust is approving rezoning applications and issuing permits for resorts, subdivisions, commercial developments, and so on at a dizzying pace, despite its "preserve and protect" mandate. But it is also because the B.C. government is facilitating this transformation of the islands by ignoring the provincial Heritage and Conservation Act and by cutting budgets so deeply that there are now a mere six employees in charge of overseeing more than 22,000 registered heritage sites in the province. About 1,000 sites are in the Hul'qumi'num territory, and four-fifths of those sites are on private land.

In one widely reported case last year, a sablefish-hatchery developer managed to win approval to sink sewage pipes into an ecologically unique double-sided beach on Salt Spring Island that appears on the marine charts as Walker Hook and which persists in the Hul'qumi'num memory as S'yuhuye'mun, which means, roughly, "place to catch up". It didn't matter that Hul'qumi'num people had made it well known that Walker Hook was a place of the dead, or that Walker Hook is almost entirely constructed from the clamshell deposits of an old village, built up over thousands of years, and that it's a provincially registered archaeological site. It didn't matter that Walker Hook was within the Agricultural Land Reserve, or that it was officially zoned as a potential regional park, or that it was a place beloved of local islanders.

None of this mattered. Three provincial ministries and the Capital Regional District issued all the approvals, and Sablefin Hatcheries Ltd. went ahead with its excavation and disinterred at least a dozen skeletons in the process. An appeal board threw out the Hul'qumi'num complaints, and the beach is now underlain with sections of pipe to filter hatchery effluent through what the Kuper Island people say is a cemetery containing the sacred remains of perhaps 1,000 people.

Another case involves a huge resort development in a small bay within Bedwell Harbour on South Pender Island, at an ancient village site that appears in the Hul'qumi'num cartography as St'eyus. The word derives from the verb to dry, and it likely originated with the practice of drying salmon at Hay Point, which lies immediately adjacent to the village site. Hay Point is a small reserve shared by the Tseycum and Tsawout communities.

Late in the 19th century, the village site was named Egeria Bay, after the former British survey vessel HMS Egeria. In 1955, Egeria Bay was officially protected under provincial archaeological-site laws. By the 1980s, there was a pub, a small marina, and a federal customs dock there, and a 1990 excavation found evidence of village life going back perhaps 5,000 years.

In 2002, a Calgary-based developer bought the place, renamed it "Poet's Cove", and began work on a massive $40-million project that included a lodge and support facilities for a 120-berth marina. The relevant provincial ministries granted all the necessary approvals. The Islands Trust and the Capital Regional District issued all the requisite permits. Construction was already well underway before the developer applied for a provincial "heritage site alteration" permit-and that was only after Tseycum people complained about what was going on.

In the end, the site wasn't just "altered". The developer excavated between 50 and 75 truckloads of archaeological deposits and dumped everything in huge heaps. Human bones protruded from the piles. At least 50 corpses were disinterred. In February 2003, several Saanich and Hul'qumi'num leaders visited the site, and they called the RCMP. On February 10 of this year, the B.C. Attorney General's office filed charges under the Heritage and Conservation Act. A trial is set for January 2006.

What happened at St'eyus is something that Hul'qumi'num chief negotiator Robert Morales calls "one of the worst desecrations of an aboriginal burial ground by developers in the recent history of Canada". But in the new, dystopian cartography of the Gulf Islands, there is now a place called "Poet's Cove", and what happened there was not a desecration but, rather, something the Islands Trust lauds as a "model" for development in the Gulf Islands.

Last month, the Poet's Cove Resort and Spa project received an "award of excellence" from the Urban Development Institute for "an amazing project that respects the sensitivity of its surroundings". The award was announced at a developers' banquet in Vancouver. Premier Campbell sent in a videotaped message. Olga Ilich, the former president of Suncor Development Ltd. who is now Campbell's tourism minister, gave a lovely speech. She's the minister responsible for the protection of B.C.'s archaeological sites.

Back on Kuper Island, Florence James and I went for a walk along a beautiful curving beach at the south end of the island, at the bottom of a long and bone-jarring dirt road. The place appears on the marine charts as Lamalchi Bay. It's known to old Kuper Islanders as Hwlumelhtsu, which means "lookout place". There was once a large Hul'qumi'num village here.

On April 20, 1863, the British gunship Forward arrived at Hwlumelhtsu and bombarded the village, concentrating its cannon fire on a fortified blockhouse with musket loopholes in its timbers. But village marksmen had taken up positions on the two points of land at either side of the mouth of the bay, and they strafed the decks of the Forward with musket fire from both sides. Three hours later, the Forward retreated. The only recorded death was that of a 16-year-old sailor, Charles Gliddon, who took a musket ball in the head.

In some accounts, the Lamalchi people were piratical outcasts who brought misfortune upon themselves by murdering white settlers that Hul'qumi'num people had welcomed into their territories, and also by murdering the great Cowichan chief Tzouhalem and the Lyackson chief Ashutsten. In other accounts, the Lamalchis were engaged in a just war of resistance against invasion, and their village was brutally shelled and their warriors hunted down like dogs and hanged.

In either case, it was on that April afternoon in 1863 that treaty-making came to an end in British Columbia. There had been a handful of land-settlement agreements on Vancouver Island, but after the "Lamalchi War", the Crown abandoned its duty to reconcile settler and aboriginal interests. That is B.C.'s distinct legacy, the wound that Gordon Campbell's "new relationship" is supposed to heal. It's what has made this province so haunted. It is in all our cartographies. Sometimes the place name is Lamalchi Bay, and sometimes it's Hwlumelhtsu. But always, there is a gently curving beach, an unspeakably beautiful place, and a place of great sorrow.

"I'm sad about it," James said, "but I know a lot of the people on the other islands, they have the same kind of beliefs that I do."

We came to a place on the beach with a half-hidden petroglyph rock and a little creek trickling out of the forest. It used to be a ritual bathing place.

"You have to be prepared in your heart to love all people, is all I can say," James said. "It's the only way you can survive. It's the only way you can cope with the way things are."