An archeological dig is now underway at the Glenrose Cannery site – one of B.C.’s oldest and richest pre-contact locations – just before the South Fraser Perimeter Road paves over it.
The activity near the south end of the Alex Fraser Bridge has sparked fresh criticism from those who think an ancient treasure trove is being sacrificed for the sake of a truck freeway.
“I think there’s a lot to learn there before it’s capped with a highway,” says amateur archeologist Tony Hardie, who questions why work to recover artifacts didn’t start much sooner and wants authorities to disclose what’s found and where it ends up.
The North Delta artifact dealer has been examining this stretch of the Fraser River for 30 years – ever since he found a stone bead on the beach at age 10 and was drawn into a lifelong exploration of B.C.’s ancient history.
Hardie knows authorities see him as a looter.
Just a few weeks ago he plucked an ancient fluted blade from the eroding riverbank.
Hardie says he went to great lengths to turn it over to provincial officials.
The shoreline turns up such finds continually, without excavating.
“The tide goes in and out there twice a day and it’s like a big shaker, it just washes everything out,” Hardie said.
“When somebody picks up an artifact that’s eroding out of a beach, that’s preservation. That’s a whole different ball game than someone out looting graves and trying to profit from artifacts.”
Dozens of people walk the beach and take what they find, he said, noting it’s been illegal under B.C.’s Heritage Conservation Act since the 1970s to collect or sell such items. (Dealing in artifacts found earlier is allowed).
The Glenrose and nearby St. Mungo sites have been extensively studied.
Aboriginal artifacts discovered there are stored at UBC’s Museum of Anthropology and date back up to 9,000 years.
Some objects have emerged extremely well-preserved from wet sites in which organic material such as wood is very slow to disintegrate.
Advocates argue the area should be a national or even world heritage site.
Local First Nations bands, far from opposing the perimeter road, have signed onto a monitoring agreement with the province to guide the archeology work and receive compensation and jobs for their band members.
The Tsawwassen, Musqueam, Katzie, Kwantlen and Kwikwetlem have all signed on.
When Hardie saw the digging begin in late August and started photographing the work from a sidewalk, he was threatened by a security guard from a Musqueam-run firm.
The secrecy, Hardie said, troubles him.
He and others believe the government, desperate to build the perimeter road and advance its port expansion agenda, has bought First Nations’ silence to minimize the bad optics.
Geoff Freer disputes that and is anything but ashamed of Victoria’s plans.
The province’s director of the $1.1-billion South Fraser Perimeter Road project said “millions of dollars” are being spent on extensive safeguards to protect the archeological values along the 40-kilometre corridor.
“When this project is done, these sites are going to be very recognized and much better protected from degradation and looting than before,” he said. “Nobody’s happy with the past and how the area’s been treated.”
For too long, he said, looters have been able to hide in the brush, dig holes and haul out artifacts.
Clearing, fencing and securing the area is changing that – as well as the placing of rip-rap atop some riverfront areas that were favoured by illegal diggers.
Freer said the perimeter road’s alignment has been shifted to avoid 90 per cent of the key archeological sites.
Instead, the road will run largely where houses were before and it will generally be built atop existing soils, without digging into them and excavating anything.
In one area beneath the Alex Fraser, the road will be elevated to bridge over a critical site and minimize the disturbance.
Some supporting columns will be dug deeply into the ground and Freer said it is mainly in those areas that the archeologists, including First Nations workers, will be closely analyzing what emerges from the soil.
The aim of the archeology work is not to find and remove artifacts, he said, but to monitor the work along the entire corridor to ensure objects or remains are properly and respectfully handled if they do turn up.
“The general approach, as much as possible, is to leave everything on the site intact and not disturb it,” he said.
“If for some reason the experts think things should be moved, we work with First Nations. Anything that leaves the site would go to UBC, to the Museum of Anthropology, which works closely with the Musqueam.”
(At left: A carved object – deemed “Glenrose Man” – found in the area decades ago. It is kept at UBC’s Museum of Anthropology).
The historic Glenrose Cannery building itself is now mostly dismantled, but that was a decision of Port Metro Vancouver, which owns the structure, not the province.
The transportation ministry’s plans for the site include creating a First Nations-designed interpretation and recognition area with information signboards explaining the history and significance.
When finished, the interpretive site will also be a waterfront park connected by trail through Cougar Creek Park to link up with the Burns Bog trail, Freer said.
Musqueam officials who are taking the lead on the monitoring work declined to comment.
Freer said both he and First Nations are reluctant to publicly discuss the sites, especially exact locations, for fear it would lead to more looting.
Tsawwassen First Nation (TFN) Chief Kim Baird said her community signed the impact and benefits agreement with the province because it delivered the best possible scenario to minimize further disruption of the sites.
“Ultimately we would love to see all archeological deposits untouched if possible,” she said.
Sections of the route have already been heavily disturbed by decades of home construction, where builders digging basements have turned up artifacts – and worse.
“I’ve seen some pretty terrible things in residential areas,” Baird said.
“Lap pools have been allowed in people’s backyards and they’ve taken out human remains to do that. I’ve seen the most terrible things you can imagine. It’s sickening.”
That’s a key reason why First Nations want any roadwork done sensitively and with respect, she said.
“Most people view aboriginal sites as prehistoric and therefore not as meaningful as digging up a cemetery or something like that. Just because it’s not readily seen and not highly visible doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a huge amount of cultural significance.”
Activists opposing construction of the road as a “climate crime” have held up the ancient sites as another reason it shouldn’t proceed.
But no elected aboriginal leader has joined them in trying to block the SFPR.
A legal challenge that seeks to halt work on the perimeter road because it would plow through sacred burial grounds was filed in May by two aboriginal people.
But the plaintiffs are a Sioux Cree member with no local roots and a TFN member who is a longtime opponent of Baird who failed to block the Tsawwassen treaty or win elected office in the TFN government.
It’s not the first time Baird has been on the opposite side of the barricades from the protesters.
When Victoria and Ottawa were gung-ho to develop the Pacific Gateway, Baird used the TFN’s strategic position as leverage to negotiate her people’s historic treaty, which critics lashed as a sell-out of scarce farmland to abet the port expansion plans.
Baird is aware of the accusation now that the perimeter road deal is a payoff that makes First Nations complicit in the destruction of their own heritage.
“That’s a naive view of the reality of trying to address development in an urban area,” she responds. “We’re constantly faced with these sorts of challenges.”
Local bands receive an unending blizzard of development referrals in which they’re expected to quickly indicate if a proposal might impact archaeological sites, the local environment or otherwise infringe aboriginal rights in their traditional territories.
“We’re very diligent in trying to do the best we can for those sites against all odds – especially in the Lower Mainland, which is constantly under development pressure.”
Unlike private property, the government-led SFPR on what becomes Crown land allowed much more scope and leverage for bands to secure what they felt was appropriate, Baird said.
“Is it perfect? Maybe not. But sometimes you have to deal with less than perfection,” Baird said.
“Most of these projects succeed. Sticking your head in the sand and pretending it won’t happen hasn’t been an effective approach for us in the past.”