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The BC capital is built atop one of the largest burial grounds of the pre-contact world
There was a time, not too long ago, when digging up the bones of the dead was a popular Vancouver Island pastime.
Guy McNeill, proprietor of the Cadboro Bay Motel, made it a hobby to dig up gravesites around the property and then mount the bones as “conversation pieces” in the motel lobby. “What’s in a skull? Lots of fun,” declared a 1963 profile of McNeil in the Daily Colonist.
Indigenous bones often sat alongside Cretaceous-era fossils and antique farming implements at the Island’s many community museums. “The most interesting thing at the museum was a skeleton head. It belonged to an Indian,” wrote a school-aged girl after a 1969 visit to the Courtenay Museum.
In 1967, the Daily Colonist would feature a lighthearted column about doing errands around Victoria while toting around two Indigenous skulls dug out of a Salt Spring Island gravesite. “The skulls and I did some shopping,” declared writer Bea Hamilton.
The recreational desecration of graves has since stopped, museums have quietly removed the skulls of Coast Salish ancestors from their display cases and ancient burial sites are now strictly protected by provincial law. But while non-Indigenous Victorians may have abandoned their bizarre custom of digging up the dead for fun, the practice reveals an even greater unpleasant secret about the BC capital: This city, perhaps more than any other Canadian settlement, is literally built atop the bones of the region’s first peoples.
The land we now call Victoria had thousands of Lekwungen burial cairns, according to UVic archaeologist Darcy Mathews. Around Cadboro Bay alone, several hundred cairns have been documented, some of them dating back 1,500 years. Many, if not most, have been obliterated as the city grew.
Massive burial grounds were to be expected in what was once one of the most densely populated corners of pre-Columbian North America. Rivers filled with salmon, forests filled with berries and vast stands of the largest trees on earth left the Salish Sea dotted with sprawling villages that could turn straits black with canoes and skies hazy with the smoke from cook fires. Mathews notes that the Rocky Point Peninsula, just across the water from Clover Point, has 515 visible burial cairns – one of the “largest mortuary landscapes on the Northwest Coast of North America.”
The power and prosperity of the pre-contact Coast Salish was never fully glimpsed by Europeans, as smallpox had already chewed through local populations by the time George Vancouver arrived in the region in 1792. Just like a traveller stepping into Europe in the wake of the Black Death, Vancouver encountered abandoned villages strewn with bones and ad-hoc bands of badly scarred survivors.
The typical Lekwungen burial cairn is a pile of small boulders about the height of a fire hydrant. Built on the rocky terrain overlooking the sea between Cattle Point and the Cadboro Bay cliffs, the abundance of loose stones made the type of burial possible. The body – commonly laid on its side and sometimes burned – was then covered with a layer of earth, a pile of stones meticulously placed in a circle around the corpse and blanketed with a layer of gravel and small cobbles.
Victoria had some of the most elaborate and the greatest concentrations of these cairns, and that is particularly true of the city’s richest neighbourhood, the Uplands.
The Uplands, like the rest of Oak Bay, was part of a 2,602 acre parcel of land acquired in the early 1860s by the Hudson’s Bay Company, who exchanged 90 wool blankets to the Chekonein family group for its use as farmland.
While undeveloped corners of Oak Bay such as Uplands Park purport to preserve the area’s “natural” character, the reality is that the landscape has been intensely shaped by human hands for thousands of years. Burning practices carried out over several millennia by the Coast Salish transformed the Uplands from dense forest into open savannah.
The Uplands’ designer, John Charles Olmsted, realized this. The adopted son of legendary landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, the creator of New York’s Central Park, Olmsted would write in his diary that the future site of the Uplands was “most likely an Indian deer park ... the Indians probably set grass fires there annually to burn off dead grass and weeds and little seedling trees and brush to improve the pasturage for the deer.”
These fires also cleared the way for rich natural orchards of berries, as well as a reliable harvest of Blue Camas bulbs in the soil where the Uplands Golf Club now sits. It was permaculture on a grand scale, providing tonnes of food for Lekwungen villages that used to occupy the current-day sites of the Royal Victoria Yacht Club and Willows Beach, among others.
And just inland from these thriving coastal villages, centuries of Lekwungen buried their dead.
Olmsted knew that he was expected to build a luxury suburb atop what was in essence a massive cemetery. He saw the rock cairns and apparently knew their purpose. But as Olmsted created a topographical map that took careful note of the area’s ponds, cow trails and even the specific locations of nearly 3,000 trees, he did not include the grave sites. The neighbourhood’s final design would be careful to preserve as many of the area’s ancient Garry oak trees as possible, but countless cairns would be bulldozed to make way for homes and lawns.
It was not just ancient gravesites that would be subsumed by Victoria’s expansion. In the mid-19th century, one of the most visible landmarks for ships entering the Inner Harbour had been an elaborate wooden tomb built on the site of what is now the Inn at Laurel Point. “What happened to the ancestral remains is unknown,” read a recent analysis by the Royal BC Museum.
The eviction or destruction of the many graves dotting Greater Victoria was one of the final acts of a lengthy process that had systematically purged Coast Salish peoples from the lands they had literally hallowed with their ancestors. In the early 20th century, a rapidly expanding Victoria was elbowing Indigenous settlements out of the way, most famously a Songhees village that once sat on the western edge of what is now the Johnson Street Bridge.
At the time, representatives of the displaced Songhees travelled to Ottawa to negotiate the return of some of their former lands as a reserve, suggesting the northeastern, waterfront section of the Uplands farm.
But by that time, plans were already in the works for the creation of a luxurious, upper-class residential development in the area, and according to Uplands historian Larry McCann, the possibility that the Canadian government would even give a small part of the farm back to the Songhees people would put a huge dent in HBC’s plan. The company believed the presence of an Indigenous reserve brought land values down in nearby areas, which seriously clashed with their vision for the Uplands land.
According to McCann, HBC fought hard against the claim. In the end, the Songhees eventually re-settled on a reserve near the Esquimalt naval base and were given a cash settlement and new housing.
Nevertheless, with the creation of the Uplands, the Songhees continue to allege the original Douglas Treaty was violated. In 2009, the First Nation filed a lawsuit against the federal and provincial government over broken promises over the use of the Uplands land.
“Under the treaty, the Songhees ancestors were promised that their village sites and fields would be protected for their use and the use of future generations, and that their villages and fields would be properly surveyed,” Rory Morahan, lawyer for the Songhees First Nation, told the Times Colonist in 2009.
But this didn’t happen. Instead, the land title was issued to other parties; “that is, non-aboriginal colonists,” said Morahan.
These colonists, who built the homes that make up many of Victoria’s historic neighbourhoods, often did not appreciate that their houses sat atop the ruins of vast settlements built by the ancestors of the Songhees, but they did start to notice the bones.
“The southern and eastern part of Vancouver Island seem, at a period not very far back, to have been inhabited by a very numerous population,” declared a visiting French scientist in 1876 describing “thousands” of burial cairns around Cadboro Bay.
One of the first in Victoria’s line of “amateur archaeologists” was James Deans. One of the earliest European settlers on Vancouver Island, he quickly began digging up what would later be described as “Indian trophies,” including skulls. Despite this, Deans never seems to have acknowledged a link between the burial mounds around Victoria and the region’s contemporary native people, attributing the structures either to Japanese settlers or to a lost race who had drowned in the Biblical Great Flood.
By the late 1800s, just as the plans for the Uplands were taking shape, a group called the BC Natural History Society formed to organize weekend excursions to dig up the region’s many stone mounds. Subsequent photos taken by the society show groups of smiling men and women in fancy dress tearing apart centuries-old burial cairns with pickaxes.
“The cairns are found promiscuously scattered all over the Southern and Eastern Portion of the Coast of Vancouver Island,” one society member, Frank Sylvester, said in a 1901 talk. He also described ”promising a skeleton” to a visiting German scientist. “Being fortunately successful, we gave him the skeleton, and it [is] now in a museum in Germany,” he said.
Sylvester, like Deans, stuck to the somewhat incredible assertion that these bones and cairns had no connection to the Songhees people so recently displaced from the area. “These rude piles of stones contain the bones of a long vanished race,” he said at the 1901 talk, declaring that “their origin or antiquity is unknown,” but speculating that they could potentially come from long-lost Japanese or Chinese colonists.
There were still plenty of Songhees around to tell Sylvester the truth of who had built the cairns, but he wrote this off as the inventions of “accomplished Liars.”
By the 1970s, a rising native rights movement would dissuade some of the worst excesses of those who once dug up Indigenous graves for fun. In 1979, for instance, the newly formed National Indian Brotherhood intervened to stop a Sotheby’s auction of plundered Indigenous skulls. But in Victoria, the bones continued to emerge.
In August of 1966, two boys playing on a beach in Victoria West stumbled across skulls of a male and female believed to be well over 100 years old. In the spring of 1972, a View Royal man digging in his garden accidentally shattered a skull estimated to be 2,000 years old. In 2009, construction of a large home near the Royal Victoria Yacht Club unearthed the skeleton of a teenager buried 1,000 years ago.
Unlike other famously moneyed Canadian neighbourhoods such as Montreal’s Westmount or Toronto’s Bridle Path, Uplands homeowners are a bit more hesitant to expand and renovate their properties for the simple reason that any plunge of a shovel into Oak Bay ground risks disturbing the dead. In 2016, a renovation at the home of Cadboro Bay resident Carl Foght uncovered 12 bodies, all of which were removed by provincially-approved archaeologists and ceremonially reinterred at Foght’s expense. “It’s a cost that you have to be prepared to absorb any time you do a renovation in this area,” Foght told the Victoria News in 2018. “There’s a fellow across the street who is planning to put in a new driveway, and I’ve already warned him of what might be there.”
And that’s if construction crews even know that they’re encountering ancient burial sites. Right up until the 1980s, city crews were inadvertently destroying burial mounds because they didn’t know what they were. In August of 1986, parks department crews tasked with cutting the grass on Beacon Hill Park, mistakenly moved the boulders of four burial mounds, much to the horror of Grant Keddie, curator of archaeology at the Royal B.C. Museum. In 2005, Keddie worked with parks workers to rebuild the cairns, using other cairns in the area to determine where to position the rocks.
As late as 2008 the iconic park didn’t have anything more than a passing reference to the area’s centuries of Indigenous presence. “By contrast, at least thirty-six park monuments, markers and plaques focus on the white culture’s 162 year presence,” wrote Beacon Hill Park historian Janis Ringuette at the time. The City of Victoria has since moved forward on a project to highlight the Beacon Hill Park burial grounds.
Legislation has also changed BC’s relationship with the ancestral Coast Salish dead. A 2019 amendment to the Heritage Conservation Act imposed stricter requirements on builders to report and survey potential burial mounds. The change had been spurred in part by a controversial 2014 incident in which Edmonton businessman Barry Slawsky began construction of a luxury home on an islet known to contain ancient burial mounds. The situation was ultimately resolved by the Province of BC purchasing the islet from Slawsky for $5.45 million.
But whatever the reforms, a core legal disparity remains: In BC, any post-1846 burial ground is shielded from development by strict cemeteries legislation. Any pre-1846 burial ground, meanwhile, falls under the purview of the much more permissive Heritage Conservation Act. The end result is that most Indigenous graves in BC can be exhumed to make way for a building or subdivision, while most non-Indigenous graves can’t.
As Tseycum Chief Vern Jacks said in 2014, “can you imagine if us chiefs went to Ross Bay Cemetery and said we’re going to build a longhouse over it?”