Former Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia Steven Point signs a letter to the provincial government asking for action at the Lightning Rock burial site in Abbotsford. (Ben Lypka/Abbotsford News)

VIDEO: First Nations, developer call for return and protection of sacred B.C. burial site

Dozens of First Nations leaders gather on grassy plateau to call on action by provincial government

The direction from those gathered at Lightning Rock in Abbotsford on Friday morning to the provincial government was loud and clear – let’s get this moving.

Dozens of indigenous leaders, local politicians and the current owners of the site all spoke to the public and assembled media at the gathering, which called on the provincial government to begin action to save one of Western Canada’s most important First Nations burial sites.

The Lightning Rock site, located at the end of Atkinson Road in East Abbotsford, is believed to be the burial site of hundreds if not thousands of Stó:lō peoples. Lighnting Rock is a significant cultural landscape and place of spiritual and historical significance to the Semá:th First Nation and Stó:lō/Coast Salish peoples.

Many of those buried were victims of the small pox epidemics, with historians estimating that 80 to 90 per cent of the local First Nations people perishing.

The site was then purchased by Cold Water Ranch, who intended to develop the property for an industrial project until learning during a public hearing that the land, which had a clean heritage evaluation, was actually a sacred Sto:Lo site and mass burial ground. Since 2012 the company has been negotiating with the provincial government to come to some sort of solution.

Chief Dalton Silver of the Sumas First Nation explained that the site is extremely significant, and it’s been a long and frustrating journey trying to ensure the site is saved.

“The question was brought to the cabinet in Victoria recently and the ministers more or less denied our request for the province to step in and do the right thing,” he said. “We know our peoples never would have given up title to these areas. We will keep on pursuing this and will have this place returned to us. We want it to be our own national historic park or heritage site and put it back into our control. We will preserve it and educate the people to our stories and histories.”

Leaders also challenged Premier John Horgan to come to the site to speak to them about its significance.

John Glazema, who spoke on behalf of the ranch, said the original vision for the site was an agricultural mall, but after he and his group became aware of its significance to local First Nations they chose to halt work.

“We bought the land and attempted to do everything right,” he said. “And we received approval from the province to proceed but we discovered that their process neglects First Nations criteria. We want to respect our neighbours and do what’s right, but the province has done nothing the last four years. Two years ago we had a letter of understanding that this site would be paid back to us but we’re still fighting for our money back. We’re still paying huge interest costs and the taxpayers of B.C. should not be responsible for this. I encourage the province to take ownership and find a solution. Right now it’s not good for anyone.”

RELATED: Agreement made to preserve Sumas burial site in Abbotsford

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Darryl Plecas, the MLA for Abbotsford South and the current Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of B.C., said it’s time the government acted and not just spoke to solve this issue.

“This is an opportunity for us to demonstrate that it’s not just words,” he said. “I question why should we even have to be here – this is a no-brainer. If we’re truly committed to reconciliation then this is very simply the right thing to do. I will be moving heaven and Earth to make this get to a yes.”

Dr. David Schaepe, the director and senior archaeologist of the Stó:lō Research and Resource Management Centre, said the site should be recognized and pointed out that similar sites in Chilliwack and France have more easily got the nod from the government.

“We have identified an area of tremendous cultural value as a cemetery and a cultural landscape with a transformation feautre [Lightning Rock],” he said. “These findings exceed the recognition of provincial legislation and the gaps in legislation and policy need to be addressed. We’ve calling on the province to address those gaps to help achieve reconciliation.”

Schaepe added that the site has been recognized by archaeology associations from all over the world, and the province should move forward on the project.

The gathering concluded with a dozen First Nations leaders signing a letter intending to re-iterate to the government their wishes for the future of the site.

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