On Thursday May 31, the morning drive talk radio programs in Vancouver were growling with complaints. Bewildered traffic reporters called in breathless reports.
The reason for the agitation on the airwaves was that members of the Musqueam First Nation and their supporters had carried out an unusual protest march that had gone up the on-ramp and had blocked the north end of the Arthur Laing Bridge.
The Musqueam explained in a statement sent to media that they felt compelled to use this tactic to get attention to their cause, which is that a developer has been given a permit to build condos on an ancient and sacred burial site.
Marpole, where the Arthur Laing Bridge is located in southwest Vancouver, is all part of traditional Musqueam territory, as is much of the rest of this city. All of it is Coast Salish land, unceded by any formal treaty.
The importance of the larger area where the condos are planned is well known and long- established. The Marpole Midden, known as c̓əsnaʔəm by the Musqueam themselves, was in fact recognized as a National Historic Site in 1933.
Having petitioned the provincial government to rescind the building permit, and having held numerous protests and even an ongoing 24/7 vigil at the foot of the bridge to raise the visibility of their cause, the Musqueam felt they had no choice but to carry out this blockade of morning traffic.
This type of protest is easy fodder for the right-wing voices that dominate morning talk radio. But it’s also, for the Musqueam, the only way for their cause to get the high profile coverage it deserves. For generations and generations, they have watched as their lands were given away by the Crown to private developers. Watched as bridges, sawmills, apartment blocks and roads were built without anyone asking their permission, and watched as the vast majority of the settler population did sweet nothing to protest any of it.
Rather than give in to those right-wing voices on the airwaves appealing to the worst in us – intolerance, prejudice, indifference to those who have suffered – we would do well to take this blockade by the Musqueam as a chance to think about the bigger picture.
No reasonable person can honestly deny the Musqueam’s claim to the land, nor their demand that this burial site be spared from another condo development. Many have taken the time to show support, and to go down to their vigil next to the Arthur Laing Bridge.
They have some politicians taking up their cause. To his credit, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson has ridden his bike down there to sign their petition and to offer his support. West End MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert has taken their cause to the legislature in Victoria.
And it’s in the provincial capital where the power to rescind the building permit lies. Premier Christy Clark has refused to budge, and her government has thus far ignored the appeals from the Musqueam and their allies.
If you think it’s inconvenient to have to wait an extra half an hour in traffic one morning a year, imagine waiting months and years with a government that ignores you – on top of waiting generations to see a semblance of justice and restitution for the historic injustices of colonialism.
“It’s our ancestor’s final resting place, we don’t want them to be disturbed,” says Cecilia Point, a spokesperson for the Musqueam.
You’d have to be shameless not to empathize with this basic human sentiment. Historically, the governments of Canada and British Columbia have stolen their lands and attempted to forcibly destroy their culture. And now the current provincial government appears set on insisting, adding insult to injury by digging up the graves of their people.
If we don’t help the Musqueam stop this, the shame is on us, too. The only truly unusual thing about last Thursday morning’s protest is that it doesn’t happen more often.