Preserving the 'Place of the Great Blue Heron': cultural training for workers at Riverview grounds

According to traditional knowledge, the lands, known as Smu’q wa ala, were a place of safety and refuge more than 9,000 years ago.

Heritage training required for workers during redevelopment of lands where Riverview hospital once operated

Long before the provincial government took control of the Riverview grounds, the Kwikwetlem people took refuge at Smu’q wa ala, which means "Place of the Great Blue Heron" in hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓, the nation’s traditional language. (Renewing Riverview)

More than a century ago, the Riverview lands in Coquitlam became the site of a mental health institution, but thousands of years before that it was known to the Kwikwetlem people as "Smu'q wa ala."

It means "Place of the Great Blue Heron" in hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓, the nation's traditional language.

Now, that history is being integrated into a massive renewal and refurbishing underway through a heritage training program delivered by the First Nation.

"There needs to be a lot of healing going on on these lands," said Andrea Aleck, the Kwikwetlem First Nation chief officer of special projects.

"I look at it from a historical perspective with sadness and also, today, I look at it with optimism for Kwikwetlem's new role in asserting their Aboriginal rights to self-government, self-determination and planning for the future," said Aleck.

'Much deeper history'

In 2016, the Kwikwetlam First Nation filed for rights and title in an area that includes the Riverview lands.

That process is ongoing but in the meantime the nation is deeply involved in creating and executing a vision for the future of this land.

The Kwikwetlam First Nation has been working in partnership with B.C. Housing on developing plans for the site but for which it is mandated that any construction or disturbance of the soil has to follow protocol, including oversight by Brown & Oakes Archeology.

Last year, however, construction contractor EllisDon began an unauthorized dig that did not respect the agreed upon protocol.

The action upset stakeholders who were worried about damage to artifacts and any evidence of the site's early civilization.

According to oral history the lands were a place of safety and refuge, a place to harvest food and alaso of cultural and spiritual significance.

"There has been so much discussion about the historic significance of Riverview in terms of its role as a mental health facility," said Nicole Oakes, an archeologist working with the community.

"But for Kwikwetlem families, Kwikwetlem elders, there is a much deeper history here."

'An eye-opener'

After the unauthorized work, a 30-day "cooling off period" was prescribed and the First Nation worked with Brown & Oakes  to develop a heritage training program.

The 2.5-hour workshop focuses on the history of the land, the people and protecting the remaining evidence of its pre-colonial history.

Bradley Reid, the Riverview Project Manager for EllisDon is one of more than 100 people who have completed the workshop.

He said the experience has been positive and completely changed the way he approaches the work.

"Really it's awareness of exactly what is there," Reid told The Early Edition's story producer, Margaret Gallagher.

"It's certainly an eye-opener for how we proceed when we're doing the work that we're doing here."

Plans to expand the training, even developing a formal certificate program, are underway as the redevelopment continues and more workers come to the site.

With files from Margaret Gallagher and The Early Edition