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In June 2016, B.C.'s Premier Christy Clark announced her support for the return of Aboriginal cultural and sacred objects held in US museums, stating "It is long past time that those items of such spiritual significance to First Nations in British Columbia found their way home to those communities." This sentiment is laudable and well overdue, given the theft of Aboriginal graves and heritage sites was prolific during the 19th and early 20th century.
However, before we celebrate, it's worth asking, what is different today? Has this kind of looting really ended? What is B.C.'s own policy towards Aboriginal heritage?
Aboriginal heritage is largely governed in B.C. by the Heritage Conservation Act (HCA). The Act, on paper, protects sites, objects, and human remains predating 1846, the year the Oregon Treaty was signed. In practice, however, it all comes down to how one defines 'protection.'
For anyone wanting to build on a heritage site -- more commonly referred to as an 'archaeological' site -- there is a government permitting process for investigating the potential impacts and exploring mitigation strategies. This process is administered by the B.C. Archaeology Branch within the Ministry for Forests, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations. (The fact that Aboriginal cultural heritage is placed in this Ministry is a subject worthy of an article unto itself.) The archaeological assessment process, like the environmental assessment process, is what is called a user-pay model -- meaning, the entity wishing to develop the site is the one who pays for the heritage investigation.
This might seem like letting the shepherd the sheep, or at least having the wolves pay the shepherds to figure out how many sheep the herd can do without. Either way, it's an inherent conflict of interest for the protection of heritage sites to rest in the hands of people who are paid by the would-be developer, whose interest is bottom-line, bottom-dollar.
And how effective has this model been? Anecdotally and always off-the-record, people in the business tell us stories about the firm who underbids on a contract and then does shoddy work, or the archaeologist who chooses not to find cultural remains so the work proceeds quickly, to the delight of the client, the paying developer. Some tell of literally standing in the way of a bulldozer arguing with the foreman who is under pressure to get back on schedule. Others describe sites being destroyed under the cover of night without a permit. And just about everyone in the business knows of one time or another when human remains were found in a box in the office and no one had any idea where they came from.
On-the-record studies are harder to come by. One such study conducted by Rich Hutchings looked at heritage sites on B.C.'s amenity-rich Sunshine Coast, and found that 75% had already been negatively impacted by development. This isn't mega-projects either, but rather residential development and all of the infrastructure and landscaping that support it -- this, because people want to live where people have always lived: by the waterfront. For a region looking to expand its role as a retirement and 'bedroom community' for Vancouver commuters, the future does not bode well for Aboriginal heritage landscapes. Add to that the sea level rise threat and you have a perfect storm.
Most of this slow dismantling of Indigenous heritage landscapes takes place quietly and without public notice. Occasionally, however, archaeology and the destruction of heritage sites becomes newsworthy. It was raised in 2012 when the Musqueam First Nation staged a 6-month protest and vigil at a condominium development in the Marpole area of Vancouver that had unearthed human remains at a known heritage site significant to Musqueam. It was raised again in 2014 concerning Grace Islet near Saltspring Island where a luxury home was being constructed on top of an Aboriginal cemetery. In both cases, there was protest by local Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities and others over the government's permitting of this heritage site destruction, prompting vast media coverage and negative PR for all involved. In both cases, after months and months of conflict, the projects were shut down.
This is not how things usually go, however. For every one of these media-saturated stories, there are another 400+ permitted archaeological investigations every year, at least a third of which result in impacts to Aboriginal heritage sites, with cultural objects and human remains being disturbed, removed, and effectively erased from public memory.
What role do the affected Indigenous groups play in this process? Minimally they are consulted, meaning they receive a letter of notification for the project. Often, their involvement is limited to having a representative on the site while it's being dug up.
Increasingly, First Nations are trying to assert control over the stewardship of their heritage landscapes by becoming involved in decision-making, even creating their own archaeological consulting firms. This shifts some power into the hands of those whose heritage is at stake.
However, few Aboriginal groups have the capacity to support this kind of endeavour, economically or in terms of personnel. Indeed, in response to Clark's demand for repatriation, George Nicholas at SFU pointed out that repatriation comes with a hefty price-tag; the archaeology industry is no different, with costs for a relatively small-scale excavation in the tens-of-thousands of dollars.
So who is to blame? Well, the archaeologists are the ones who facilitate this process everyday on-the-ground, while trying to earn a living without compromising their ethics. The developers fund the whole project, often putting profit first. The Archaeology Branch is notoriously understaffed and overworked, but ultimately they are the individuals responsible for approving permits. And the legislation itself, the Heritage Conservation Act, frames Indigenous heritage sites as science instead of as cemeteries. The failure to protect heritage landscapes is institutional and systemic.
In the 19th century, archaeological interest focused on acquiring exotic 'Indian artifacts' for museum displays and collecting Indian skulls to support scientifically-racist ideas about humanity. Today's archaeologists feel they are saving the past by salvaging what they can before sites are inevitably impacted and their source of knowledge is lost. In both cases, however, the result is the same: the disturbance of ancestors from their sites of rest, the removal of cultural objects into boxes in museums, and ultimately the erasure of Indigenous history from the landscape.
Little different from outdated colonial policies, these practices are ethically deplorable, and Aboriginal people have been protesting the government's policies since there was a Canadian government. And, with Canada's recent adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), government responsibility to support the right of Aboriginal people to maintain and control their heritage and culture has been affirmed. This is on top of the existing duty of the Crown to fully consult First Nations concerning development infringing on their rights and accommodate as negotiated -- a duty nearly always downloaded to the developers and their consultants. On paper, these responsibilities suggest B.C. and Canada should be very concerned with how Aboriginal heritage is 'protected' here at home.
In practice, there already exists a legal mechanism to support Aboriginal rights over their heritage and culture in the Heritage Conservation Act. Section 4 enables B.C. to create agreements delegating responsibility over heritage to the affected Indigenous group, and this option was readily pursued by the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, the First Nations Leadership Council, with the province joining them in the Joint Working Group on First Nations Heritage Conservation. However, in 2012, the relationship broke down, with the UBCIC stating that the B.C. government, under then-Premier Gordon Campbell, was unwilling to prioritize and proceed with these agreements: "With this decision, the Province is now allowing for the continued desecration of First Nations heritage sites. The Province has been very clear that it has no plan or solutions to deal with issues arising out of the HCA or protecting First Nations sacred/cultural sites."
With Christy Clark's stated interest in supporting Aboriginal heritage, and Canada's new commitment to UNDRIP, it remains to be seen whether the government will fulfill its fiduciary and financial responsibilities concerning Indigenous concerns. Heritage is central to culture, and culture is what's at stake. So perhaps, instead of throwing stones at museums in the U.S. that hold Aboriginal culture hostage, Clark should look in her own backyard.