A B.C. developer is calling on the province to fix gaps in heritage conservation laws, after the City of Abbotsford recently rejected his bid to build a farm equipment dealership on a property believed to be the site of aboriginal mass graves.

“This is a huge problem,” said John Glazema, director of Corpus Management Group, who lives in Abbotsford. “I feel betrayed because there shouldn't be these types of encumbrances against private properties without having it highlighted on land title.”

At the heart of the dispute is a 160-acre property on the slopes of Sumas Mountain, currently a mixture of farm pasture and woodlands. Corpus bought the property in 2011 at a foreclosure auction, with a plan to build a $40-million residential and industrial project, which would include a retail mall for farm equipment.

Corpus Management

Corpus Management planned to build a $40-million residential and industrial project on the site, including a retail mall for farm equipment ( Corpus Management)

“I thought it was a great opportunity,” Glazema said. “We're there to support the agricultural community that keeps this community alive, that employs more people than any other industry.”

But members of the Sumas First Nation were dismayed when they learned of the proposal.

“We were told to stay away from there,” Sumas First Nation Chief Dalton Silver said.In the language of our old people, they said 'chi,' which meant the spirits, were there. We were told the ancestors were buried there.”

Silver is “relieved” the development was halted, but said confrontations between private property owners and First Nations will continue to cause economic uncertainty in B.C. until the provincial government reforms the current system.

“Non-native people have all kinds of protections around their cemeteries, yet the province won’t recognize ours,” he said.

“We don’t want to spoil the relationship with our neighbours … the government needs to step in and be part of the solution to the mess we're in right now.”

Burial sites hundreds of years old

The burials date back to 1782, when the Sumas people were decimated by a smallpox epidemic that reduced their population by 80 per cent. According to oral history, the survivors buried the dead at a spiritual site now known as Lightning Rock.

“At one time, it was a living being – some say a shaman – who put a challenge to the Thunderbird. That's where the lightning came from. It split it into four and that's where he sits now,” Silver said.

Lightning Rock Spiritual site to Sumas peoples

Lightning Rock is an important spiritual site to the Sumas First Nation. According to oral history, a shaman who confronted the Thunderbirds was transformed into stone and split by lightning. (Duncan McCue/CBC)

In addition to that “transformer” rock, archeologists found culturally modified trees and more than 40 earthen mounds on the property, believed to be burial mounds.

“This is a hot spot in the cultural landscape,” said Dave Schaepe of the Stó:lō Resource Management Centre, which conducted the archeological assessment in 2006.

“It’s a bit surprising that a new property owner would have purchased this property without somehow being made aware of what was reported here a number of years ago as a result of an official assessment.”

Glazema said he and his partners had no knowledge of the cultural significance to the Sumas First Nation.

“We had a solicitor and a real estate agent, and they did their due diligence prior to closing. We weren’t made aware of the heritage conservation issues,” he said.

Gaps in heritage conservation law

The province keeps a registry of First Nations graves and spiritual sites, but that information isn't shown on land title documents when someone buys a property, and there's no system to inform owners whose land is designated.

Under B.C.’s Heritage Conservation Act, owners foot the bill for archeological assessments, and risk large fines if heritage sites are destroyed.

Aboriginal graves

Over 40 burial mounds have been identified on the property. Oral history suggests the site contains a mass grave, dating back to a smallpox epidemic in 1782. (Sto:lo Resource Management Centre)

NDP MLA Maurine Karagianis recently tabled a bill calling for better protection of First Nations sacred sites. Karagianis cited the ongoing dispute at Grace Islet, where First Nations oppose provincial permits issued to build a luxury home on a site containing ancestral cairns.

The issue also grabbed headlines in 2012, when a condominium developer and Musqueam First Nation clashed over a lot in Vancouver where ancestral remains were discovered in an ancient midden.

Schaepe said the province is pitting First Nations against property owners. “All of that can be avoided if the province pays attention to this matter and stops using landowners and homeowners as shields between them and their obligation to deal with aboriginal rights and title issues.”

But the province's Minister of Forests Steve Thomson insists the current system works.

“The basic principle is that the property owner is responsible for the archeological assessment and site alteration permits,” he said. “The Heritage Conservation Act works to protect and balance the interests of private property owners and archeological sites. There are over 40,000 sites, with over 350 site alteration permits approved each year, most without incident.”

Project rejected 

B.C.’s  archeology branch and Sumas First Nation have yet to agree on what land on the site needs protection, but the province issued development permits, after Corpus Management agreed not to break ground without consent from the First Nation.

“You want to be respectful of your neighbours, so it becomes a catch-22,” Glazema said.

'I'd suggest you be very, very cautious if you purchase any property in B.C.' - John Glazema, director of Corpus Management Group 

Corpus proceeded to apply for municipal rezoning. But the project went belly up this month, when Abbotsford council rejected the bid, citing the First Nation's cultural concerns as a key factor in its decision.

Corpus is left paying taxes and interest costs on land which Glazema fears is “worthless.”

“There has to be a clear policy put in place. It's a huge liability for realtors, financial institutions, and property owners,” said Glazema, who is now lobbying the provincial government for compensation.

His takeaway? “I'd suggest you be very, very cautious if you purchase any property in B.C.”

Watch Duncan McCue’s documentary on this story on CBC-TV's The National tonight at 10 p.m.