Research group pens declaration on protecting First Nations cultural sites

January 06, 2015

Twenty-eight experts, including several at Simon Fraser University, are calling on Canadian governments to strengthen their accountability for First Nations sacred sites and develop effective ways of involving First Nations in stewarding these sites.

The experts, members of the SFU-led Intellectual Property Issues in Cultural Heritage (IPinCH) research team, have penned an international declaration on Canada’s and British Columbia’s legal and ethical obligations towards First Nations sites of cultural and spiritual significance.

IPinCH, established in 2008 with $2.5 million in funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), explores the rights, values and responsibilities of material culture, cultural knowledge and the practice of heritage research. The SFU-led project earned SSHRC’s first Partnership Impact Award in 2013. 

Experts from diverse fields—archaeologists, lawyers, anthropologists, human rights specialists, and scholars of cultural heritage among them—drew up the Declaration on the Safeguarding of Indigenous Ancestral Burial Grounds as Sacred Sites and Cultural Landscapes following a recent international gathering convened by IPinCH members.

“The declaration is a reminder of existing obligations and expectations regarding burial sites and sacred places,” says IPinCH director George Nicholas, an SFU professor of archaeology.

He says situations such as those at Grace Islet near Salt Spring Island and on Sumas Mountain in Abbotsford, where First Nations groups are concerned about local burial grounds being impacted by impending development will only become more commonplace unless gaps in B.C.’s legal and policy framework are resolved.

Nicholas hopes the declaration will help to positively influence heritage policy in B.C. He has invited the Provincial Archaeology Branch to engage in discussions with IPinCH project members about possible ways forward.

IPinCH is co-sponsoring the Spring 2015 SFU President’s Dream Colloquium on Protecting Indigenous Heritage. The free public lectures will feature internationally recognized experts and explore new approaches to collaborative research and policy development, particularly those prioritizing the interests and concerns of indigenous communities.

The first of six lectures takes place on Jan. 8 at the Burnaby campus. It will focus on indigenous cultural heritage and Canada’s laws, policy and reform, and will feature a presentation by University of Alberta law professor Catherine Bell, a co-author of the declaration.