A B.C. developer and First Nation are asking the provincial ombudsperson to investigate the government’s apparent failure to recognize the historical value of what is believed to be an ancestral cemetery.
Corpus Management Group claims that the provincial ministry of forests, lands and natural resource operations failed to grant historical status to the site, which is understood to be a mass burial ground for victims of the 1782 smallpox epidemic.
The company had planned to build a $40-million agri-centre on the 67-hectare lot in Abbotsford until it was discovered that nearly half is a sacred site for the Sumas First Nation.
Sumas Chief Dalton Silver has joined with Corpus to ask provincial Ombudsperson Jay Chalke to investigate the province.
In the meantime, Corpus’s director is urging property buyers to be “very, very careful” in light of the province’s many unsettled Indigenous land claims.
John Glazema said his company cannot be compensated for the land he purchased and is now known to be undevelopable until the province intervenes under the Heritage Conservation Act.
“This is a profoundly unacceptable circumstance,” he said in a statement.
“I would be very, very cautious if you’re purchasing any other property in B.C. At this point the collective cost of unresolved Aboriginal claims falls to unsuspecting landowners and property investors.”
The B.C. ministry of forests, lands and natural resource operations said in a statement to Windspeaker that a site alteration permit was granted to Corpus in August of 2014, but that it was suspended days later when First Nations told officials about the burial site.
The ministry said it “received further information with respect to the site” this October and it is under review.
When asked about the complaints, Ombudsperson Chalke’s office said it cannot give any specifics about any potential or current investigation.
Last December, Corpus and the Sumas Nation petitioned the ministry to designate a portion of the land as a provincial heritage site but both parties claim to have never received a response.
It is not the first time B.C. has been criticized over how the heritage act is employed.
Several years ago, the Musqueam First Nation fought to save a sacred burial site in Vancouver that was granted development permits for condos by the province.
Earlier in 2015, B.C. was criticized again when a home was partially constructed on top of an ancestral cemetery on Salt Spring Island.
Forests Minister Steve Thompson ordered a review of B.C.’s Heritage Conservation Act last January, though no results have yet been revealed.
He said at the time that it can be difficult to balance private property rights with the preservation of heritage sites.
“It can be challenging … especially when the significance of some of these archeological sites don’t become apparent until development occurs,” he said.