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Builder to explore alternatives for native burial site

Louise Point from the Musqueam Indian Band stands outside of a condominium development on burial grounds of the Musqueam Indian Band in vancouver March 13, 2012.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

A Vancouver developer has agreed to consider alternatives to plans for a condominium on privately owned lands in south Vancouver that were once burial grounds for the Musqueam Indian band.

However, Bob Ransford, spokesman for property owners Gary and Fran Hackett, stopped short of a commitment to halt work on the site while discussions continue.

No work was happening "right now," Mr. Ransford said Tuesday in an interview after a meeting with representatives of the Musqueam band and the provincial and municipal governments.

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"We agreed to explore mutually acceptable solutions in the coming weeks," he said of discussions at the meeting.

He declined to identify any of the options that were talked about. "We will see where it goes," he said.

Excavation work was halted Monday after several members of the Musqueam band erected a picket outside the site, located at Montcalm Street and Southwest Marine Drive, in the shadow of ramps leading to the Arthur Laing Bridge.

Musqueam band members, backed by the First Nations Summit, have called for the property and adjacent lands, which are also privately owned, to be turned into a protected site with cultural and discovery centres dedicated to reviving Musqueam history in the area.

Allowing a condominium on the burial grounds would be comparable to permitting development in a cemetery or among the ruins of Stonehedge, Wendy Grant-John, a Musqueam councillor, said Tuesday in an interview while picketing continued outside the development.

Aaron Wilson, a spokesman for band members protesting against the development, said most people would not feel comfortable developing condos on a grave site. Cemeteries are usually treated in a dignified and respectful manner, Mr. Wilson said. "That is what we want for one of our burial areas," he said.

Musqueam Chief Ernie Campbell has said the band will take "whatever legal steps [are]necessary to protect the entire site from any further destruction."

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The site dates back more than 4,000 years, he stated in a news release. "It is home to our people, our history and our culture," he said. "Musqueam history is Canadian history and we should all work to protect the site."

The property, recognized as a Canadian Heritage site, is widely accepted as burial grounds dating back centuries. However, the properties have been used in recent years for residential and commercial purposes. The Hackett family has owned the land for more than 50 years. "The land has been built on and its soil disturbed over many years," Mr. Ransford stated in a news release.

The B.C. government's archeology branch in December issued a site-alteration permit, allowing development on a portion of the site. Roughly half of the property would remain undeveloped. The city issued a development permit.

But then intact human remains were found in January during excavations. The province stopped work at the site of the discovery once the remains were found. Excavation was allowed to continue in other parts of the site.

Later, Mr. Wilson said he was told the developer and Musqueam representatives had agreed to a three-week "cooling-off" period.

Ideally, the cooling-off period will lead to steps to enable the Musqueam to reclaim the land, he said. "We hope they will look at different ways to make that happen," Mr. Wilson said. "We do not want the development to go ahead."

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