Sometimes you just have to draw a line.
Salt Spring Islanders came out on Saturday to do just that: hundreds of people took advantage of the lowest tide of the year to walk over to Grace Islet. Together, mothers, fathers, children, and elders worked to string a line of flags that stretched from Grace back to Ganges. Part an act of protest, part an act of prayer, the Walk for Grace became a way to physically demonstrate a commitment to honour living First Nations culture and custom. It was also a move to show respect for the resting place of the ancestors who came before us.
The disrespect being shown by one individual “owner” towards elders who have inherited the role of gravekeepers is appalling. Peaceful, gracious Cowichan elders were reluctantly “consulted” by the province, and while the elders gently but firmly said “no” to a construction project in their cemetery, our provincial government allowed the development to go ahead against their wishes.
The fact that our provincial government would allow a single-family dwelling to be constructed over the graves is shameful. The rights of a single individual trouncing the rights of a nation: disgraceful. While Saturday’s action was a powerful show of solidarity, we all carried the weight of that shame in our hearts. This is our society, our culture, supposedly enlightened, educated and very, very comfortable, behaving like an entitled, reprehensible bully.
The situation over on Grace Islet exposes the blatant racism still at work in our society. It is the frank perpetuation of injustices which many of us pretend that we have grown beyond. Japanese memorial gardens, war memorials and monuments to settlers are part of our island landscape. Yet: once a Salish town called Shiyahwt, Ganges is rich in archaeological sites, testament to the thousands of years of settlement and human culture in this place. There is no monument to this “past” civilization in town. Instead, Grace Islet stands as a horrible marker of cultural effacement that continues to this day.
The controversy over Grace Islet has kindled a spirit within many of us, a spirit of reconciliation, remembrance and commitment to new friendships with First Nations. Salt Springers are demanding of the provincial government a new regulatory framework: one in which bulldozing burial grounds is not an option.
Come out on Wednesday morning to Centennial Park to support Cowichan elders who will be visiting Grace Islet on a formal inspection tour. Let us bear witness to what unfolds on Grace Islet. Let us stand with First Nations and follow their leadership.
Most importantly, let’s ensure that as a society we behave according to the motto on our coat of arms, “Splendour without diminishment.” That means diminishment of nobody, nowhere, and actively honouring the indigenous custodians of the beautiful land we share.
The writer is a Salt Spring-based activist.