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British Columbia history that informs readers while entertaining them.

Grace Islet Burial Ground Controversy is same old, same old

Almost from the time of the arrival of Europeans, First Nations burial sites have been the targets of abuse. Most have succumbed to development although there have been cases of deliberate desecration such as occurred on Victoria’s Deadman’s Island in the 1860s.

The public was reminded of the need to protect indigenous burial grounds in the summer of 2014 when controversy raged over otherwise nondescript Grace Islet. Situated in Ganges Harbour, Saltspring Island, it was the site of a new home under construction.

It’s also the site of a First Nations burial ground and I shouldn’t have to tell you which was there first.

It should also go without saying that no one would be allowed to build their home on top of a known cemetery. A non-native cemetery, anyway, as the house referred to had been approved for construction by the province of B.C.

The owner met all legal & archaeological requirements 

He proceeded with building his retirement home despite all the controversy, despite all the bad press and despite a protest staged by Cowichan Tribes members and others including an MLA.

Grace Islet, or mum’kw’e’lu (“burial ground” in the Hul’qum’num tongue), is but one of thousands of Salish grave sites known to exist along Vancouver Island’s and the Gulf Islands’ shores. Many have been vandalized, even obliterated by development.

Deadman’s Island

Years ago, I wrote about Halkett Island, a turtle-backed lump of rock in Selkirk Water, which forms part of the saltwater corridor linking Victoria’s Portage Inlet with the Inner Harbour. When the first whites settled in Fort Victoria, it was Deadman’s Island, a Songhees tribal burial ground.

Deadman’s Island first made the news on July 1, 1867, when the British Colonist reported that a fire had destroyed its sparse greenery and some graves. The latter because it was Songhees custom to leave the coffins above ground.

Carvings, weapons, canoes, blankets–often the deceased’s most prized possessions–were placed alongside his coffin, that he might have them in the next world. Many such treasures, with the remains of their former owners, were obliterated that summer afternoon in 1867.

People were outraged                                                                                              

When it was learned that the fire had been deliberately set. The Colonist, in the purple prose of the day, expressed outrage on behalf of the community, native and white: “…The torch of some sacrilegious incendiary fired the shrubbery that covered the island, and the fire-fiend sent forth his tongues in every direction.

“The flames raged all Sunday, destroying nearly every consumable object on the island; the neighbourhood was pregnant with the horrid smell of burning animal matter, while the rats…leaped into the water and swam across the harbour to the nearest shore.

“The trees, shrubbery and the relics were consumed while the ghastly skeletons, blackened by fire and smoke, yesterday lay exposed on the ground.
The scoundrel who fired the heap, if discovered, should be well punished.”

Police weren’t long in laying the crime to two young men, Peter Scully and Henry Hebbard. Scully was arrested at his mother’s house shortly afterward but it was feared that Hebbard had fled to Washington Territory.

Scully blamed Hebbard for starting the blaze. According to witnesses who’d been boating in the vicinity, two young men approached the island by boat. One went ashore as the other waited, oars at the ready. Minutes after, both rowed hastily away as flames erupted in some brush on the island.

Scully was remanded three days as the search continued for Hebbard.

The authorities were as upset by the Deadman’s Island affair as the Songhees. Raged the Colonist: “It is a fact worthy of remark that when the country swarmed with rough characters in ‘59 and ‘62, not a man of them ever offered to outrage the feelings of the natives by disturbing their dead [my italics–TWP] and it is truly lamentable that the less turbulent times of ‘67 should have witnessed an act of vandalism as the willful destruction of a burying ground.”

Five days later, Scully appeared before Magistrate A.F. Pemberton a second time. He was released on his own recognizance in the amount of $50, this sum having already been paid to the Songhees as compensation and the tribe had expressed its satisfaction with that honorarium.

Pemberton instructed police to make further efforts to find the missing Hebbard, that he might be arrested in time for Scully’s trial

Whether or not as a result of Pemberton’s directive, Sebastian Henry Hebbard was soon in custody, Sgt. Bowden having tracked him to Cowichan. Upon his being remanded, Majistrate Pemberton remarked that the torching of Deadman’s Island “was of a much more serious character” than he’d first supposed.

When, finally both accused arsonists stood in the dock, Scully was discharged, Hebbard fined $50.

In hope of discouraging further vandalism, Victoria City Council passed an ordinance imposing a fine of $100 or three months’ imprisonment upon conviction of willful destruction, or looting of First Nations remains and relics, the same penalty to be applied to those caught in possession of such artifacts while knowing them to be stolen.

A second offense would mean a six-month prison term.

Half-acre Deadman’s Island was removed from the Songhees Reserve by the provincial government in 1916. The Geographic Board of Canada added insult to injury by renaming it Halkett Island in honour of a sea captain. The former burial ground was returned to the Songhees in the 1970s.


  1. Hi Tom,

    Grace Islet and Halkett Island article well written and researched as always. Than you, Tom.

    Art imitating life: we visited both these areas in July 2014.
    Ganges Wednesday, July 16, 2014
    Selkirk Waters Thursday, July 31, 2014
    Cheers, Bill

    • Hi, Bill: Sorry for the delay in acknowledging you–have had some server troubles. Oh, and working around the clock to meet deadlines; you know, same old, same old! The irony here is it’s illegal to knowingly disturb an Indian midden. Unless you’re with the government or a friend of the government, of course. I remember when they rerouted the Island Highway north of Qualicum (can’t quite place it now) in the ’70s. You could see where they’d cut right through a midden that was probably 12 feet deep. It was in their way and they were trucking it out as gravel. The usual double standard, eh? Cheers, TW

  2. Hi T.W.
    Would you mind contacting me via the above email address? I’m the co-planning coordinator for the Around Town Tellers of Nanaimo. We host monthly storytelling concerts attended by about 60-80 people, and our theme for November (the 14th) is “Stories of Nanaimo”. We were wondering if you might be interested in participating in this fun evening.

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