B.C. First Nation leaders are set to gather Friday near an Abbotsford burial site to call for the land to be returned to the Sumas First Nation.
Sumas Chief Dalton Silver and former Lieutenant Governor Steven Point will be joined by other First Nation leaders to call for the provincial government to work out a deal with the owners of the property, which sits at the base of Sumas Mountain.
Hundreds, potentially thousands, of Stó:lō people were buried at the Lightning Rock site beginning in the late 1700s, when a smallpox epidemic devastated local First Nations communities. Dozens of burial mounds have been identified at the site, which is located off of Atkinson Road and named for a large, distinctive rock.
The property in question isn’t part of the Sumas reserve. Instead, it’s held by a company that sought to build a farm equipment dealership on the site in 2014. That application was rejected by council after staff deemed it clashed with Abbotsford’s Official Community Plan and Stó:lō elders expressed concern that it would jeopardize the archaeological significance of the site.
While the Sumas First Nation registered opposition to the development at the time, they and the owners, Cold Water Ranch, are now unified in a call for the province to find a way to get the land back in the hands of its original owners.
In 2017, the Sumas announced it had signed a memorandum of understanding with the province stating the two bodies would work together to protect the site. A press release at the time said the company, Cold Water Ranch, supported the process and “has committed to working with the Nation on finding a conclusion that is respectful to all.”
But there has been little public progress on the matter in the two years since. A press release issued this week said that “since 2012 the company has been negotiating with the Provincial Government to return the sacred site back to the Sumas people, but has yet to reach a settlement for their costs”
The owners of Cold Water Ranch will be on hand Friday morning when Silver, Point and other B.C. Indigenous elders gather at the site at 11 a.m. to call for action on the file.
A provincial spokesperson said discussions continue with the First Nation and the landowner, “with a focus on finding a solution that meets the needs of all parties.”
While the province says it acknowledges that the site is a sacred place, it isn’t automatically protected under the Heritage Conservation Act because necessary archaeological evidence required by that law isn’t available. That is, in part, because local people have said they don’t want the site disturbed. The province says it is “working to find an alternative solution.”