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British Columbia B.C. may buy Grace Islet home to settle First Nation land dispute

The B.C. government is considering buying a partially-built home on a private islet to head off a dispute that has First Nations threatening legal action to protect an ancient burial ground.

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The B.C. government is looking at buying a partially built home on a private island to head off a dispute that has First Nations threatening legal action to protect an ancient burial ground.

Steve Thomson, Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, confirmed on Monday he has sought Treasury Board approval to give the province the option to purchase Grace Islet, where Edmonton resident Barry Slawsky is in the process of completing his retirement home.

Lorne Brownsey, former deputy minister of aboriginal affairs, has been asked to try to broker a deal between the province and the landowner, with the help of other partners including the Capital Regional District and a non-profit land trust, The Land Conservancy.

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The Cowichan Tribes have drafted a civil claim asserting aboriginal title to the islet – an unusual case, if it proceeds, because land claims are normally limited to Crown land where title has not been extinguished.

Mr. Thomson said, however, it was not the prospect of a lawsuit that prompted his intervention, but a growing awareness of First Nations' objections.

"Our concern here is the archeological values on this site became much more well-known – that's really the motivation," he said in an interview. He acknowledged that the province is intervening late in the day, given that construction is well under way.

"Time moved on. Maybe longer than we would have liked. But the important point now is that we are in discussions."

He said the solution could be for the province to purchase the land back from Mr. Slawsky, perhaps in partnership with a group such as The Land Conservancy.

"It's potentially one of the options," he said.

"We haven't taken any options off the table in terms of a resolution."

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Mr. Slawsky could not be reached for comment on Monday, but his lawyer, John Alexander, said his client has no interest in selling the property, and the construction of the home is substantially completed with the foundations and walls already in place.

"I'm not dealing with the government on any discussions of a potential sale. Mr. Slawsky started this project with the intention of building his retirement home," Mr. Alexander said.

He added that he was not aware of any mediation efforts by Mr. Brownsey.

The small, rocky island is in Ganges Harbour off Saltspring Island. It was registered as an archaeological site in 1966 after ancient native artifacts were found. Still, it was later zoned as residential land and Mr. Skawsky bought the property in 1990.

Kayakers discovered ancient human skeletal remains in the summer of 2006, leading the province to commission an archaeological impact assessment in 2010 that identified 15 rock features that may be burial cairns.

Mr. Skawsky obtained a building permit in 2011. His lawyer noted the provincial archeology branch approved the building plans, which are designed to protect the burial cairns. A crawl space has been built around those sites that are underneath the home.

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Mr. Alexander said the legal action threatened by the Cowichan Tribes could lead to significant uncertainty for B.C. landowners.

"If these issues relate to this little piece of land, they would apply to dozens of sites just in the Gulf Islands," he said. "And it would create a firestorm around commercial investment. What would motivate a company like Petronas [a potential investor in liquefied natural gas] to spend billions of dollars on a land if it could find a claim advanced against it?"

In their draft civil suit, the Cowichan Tribes argue the Crown erred in granting fee simple title to Grace Islet in the early 1900s and that it "adversely interfered and interferes with the exercise of Cowichan aboriginal title to Grace Islet."

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