“I’m not here to own the land; I’m here to look after it,” a First Nations friend said to a group of people I had invited to a Storytelling Workshop for a Community Mapping Project. We had gathered to “map our watershed”—which happened to be in the middle of the city of Vancouver—and my friend’s comment made me think. A noble idea—I thought and took a minute to let it sink in—then a few more to realize this was not a notion often shared in our modern society.
The right to land ownership is central to Western tradition, and yet it is totally opposite to the original tribal model cited. The First Nations idea of “caring for the land” instead of “owning it” was the reason why trees, fish, fur, and minerals were still wildly abundant when the settlers arrived in Vancouver in the mid-1850s and decided to stay for good.
As we well know, these clever invaders sold the land in parcels to other settlers, who proceeded to extract all the resources they assumed “belonged” to them. The real-world kingdom of massive old growth trees was gone in 20 years, and most of the local fish stock in another 30. They replaced this with their man-made world of privately owned houses and businesses and publicly owned roads and buildings.
In the meantime the original First Nations residents— who had served as faithful and efficient stewards of the land for millenia—were hustled off to reserves in various corners of the province and told not make trouble. They had to watch helplessly as their beloved natural world shrank. The water, air, and land were poisoned. Species of sealife, fish, birds, and vegetation, which had once been prolific, slowly vanished. And the irony of this was these native people weren’t allowed to “own” any of the land they had taken care of for all those centuries.
A sample restrictive covenant on property sold in Kerrisdale or Shaunessey in the 1950s said “A grantor and a grantee have agreed that as a term of such sale no Asiatic, Negro or Indian shall have the right, or own or become tenant of or occupy any part of Lots 1 – 18 Block 12.” The native people had been accustomed to burying their dead openly or in graves in different places. So it was not uncommon for bones to turn up during development, adding insult to injury.
Old photos show parts of skeletons hanging from the side of cliffs cut for roads. Some of these bones were reburied in graveyards; others were unceremoniously discarded. Either way, there was no great dignity shown to the people who had once owned these bones. Business went on as usual. Just like the native people themselves, the bones of their ancestors were in the way of “progress” and had to be dealt with accordingly.
Which brings us to a modern-day discussion of land and bones. Today (August 10) marks the 100th day that the Musqueam First Nation has been occupying a site at the village site of Cusnaum—part of the Marpole Midden on Southwest Marine Drive near Granville Street. A condominium was slated to be built there but early into the excavation, some bones were found and the work was stopped.
The land is part of a Historical Site declared in 1933 because it was one of the largest pre-contact middens on the Pacific coast. A plaque in Marpole Park serves as a marker but not much more has done to honour the area. Somewhere along the way the Midden lands were sold to private owners who erected houses, small businesses, and gas stations. These days, land in real-estate rich Vancouver doesn’t usually lie fallow for very long and the present owners of Cusnaum—who state that property has been in their family for 50 years— recently decided to develop.
At present, the Province, which is supposed to protect historic sites, has been “negotiating” with the Musqueam. But there has been little positive progress towards granting the Musqueam’s wishes to allow the bones of their ancestors to finally rest in peace and not be exhumed for yet another human development.
The Musqueam want the site turned back into park and have offered a land swap to allow this to happen. But the “negotiations” continue. I recently wrote my MLA— who happens to be a member of the ruling Liberal government—asking why they weren’t respecting the Musqueam’s right to decide what happens to this land.
I got a polite reply that stated:
“Our government recognizes that the Marpole site has great significance to the Musqueam First Nation. This situation is complicated in part by the fact that this is private land. It is not Crown land. The Province's jurisdiction on this matter is restricted to the proper administration of the Heritage Conservation Act. The Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations has responsibility for the Heritage Conservation Act. The Province is acting as a facilitator between the Musqueam, the city and the developer and we will continue to work to resolve this situation.”
Lot of words here—but what are they really saying? The Provincial government says, “the situation is complicated in part by the fact that this is private land.” And yet when the land was being bought and sold after the settlers came, the Musqueam never had a right to participate in such transactions.
So was this a fair sale of land? Of course it wasn’t, and this discussion needs to be opened up for review once more. Shouldn’t the way we view these issues and the fairness with which we approach them be altered in the 21st century in light of what we believe to be the rights of all people today—especially when these rights concern indigenous people who were clearly marginalized in their own land from the very beginning of contact?
Shouldn’t the “proper administration of the Heritage Conservation Act” mean that the Crown shows substantive respect for the Musqueam’s claim to this land for once and for all since not much that is meaningful has been done to acknowledge this? Of course it does; one would expect that is what the “Heritage Conservation Act” is for—except it is telling that this act is administered by the the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations.
As for the Province being in the facilitator role, this is ambitious. The bureaucratic machinery of government has, to this point, shown itself to be much better at the marginalization of First Nations rights than their restoration. Unless government officials approach the situation with a truly fresh frame of mind and are ready to add some material resources to undo past wrongs without causing new ones, their involvement is ultimately a futile exercise that will do nothing towards lasting reconciliation.
And one last point of clarification: considering how many people have visited the protest site who are not Musqueam, it would be safe to say the Marpole site has “great significance” to far more people than just Musqueam members.
It’s time to rethink this whole notion of complete private land ownership anyway. Yes, this is a sacred right in modern society, but this idea was laid down thousands of years ago when there fewer humans and many healthy ecosystems. Perhaps at that time land ownership made partial sense. But interject this antiquated “right” too often into the world today and add public lands that are poorly administered by the public trust and you can see why we face a host of environmental problems.
The Musqueam never had a word for the environment. For them, there was no separation of humans and the natural world. This connection was interwoven into every spiritual belief and it supported their continued sustenance from the land. To not follow sound land stewardship models was a recipe for starvation. And yet the “civilized society” that replaced them seems too often to think they are above these principles of stewardship.
Some prominent settler thinkers got the connection. Aldo Leopold, who wrote the legendary A Sand Country Almanac in the mid-20th century, talked about man widening his perception to understand that he belonged to the web of life. It wasn’t so unusual to say this as people raised on the bible for centuries had been told by David in Psalm 24:1 that “The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein.” Land belonged to God, not man and man needed to approach his dealings with the earth with humility.
Leopold wrote “The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include the soils, waters, plants and animals. It changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.” Leopold likened our idea of owning land with a declaration of ownership of people as slaves. To him we weren’t entitled to either. In essence, what Leopold was saying is that, in our brief lifetimes, what right does man have to pluck nets of fish from the ocean and place the money they were sold for in our pocket? We did nothing to create this value. We only worked to take it away. And what gave us the right to claim the property rights to a massive tree so we could cut it down and take this precious natural wonder and giver of oxygen and life away from future generations and other species?
We have now passed the 100th day of protest. It would be wonderful to imagine the discussions between the Musqueam and the Provincial government evolving into an opportunity to remake our relationships with each other and the land. It will be interesting to see if our elected leaders will be able to get beyond the “business as usual” motto that drove their predecessors. The Provincial government has the power to overcome the “private property” issue. Future generations are watching. In 2012 swapping Cusnaum for a less important piece of land and giving a small piece of this Heritage Site back to the Musqueam is the right thing to do.
Celia Brauer is co-founder and staff of the False Creek Watershed Society. This has involved discussions about water issues in and around Vancouver for the past for seven years. During this time, she has come in frequent contact with knowledgeable and supportive members of the Musqueam First Nation.