c̓əsnaʔəm: on the frontlines of colonization

Blog post by former CYH regular blogger Jannie Leung


In the telling of Canadian history, colonization is described innocuously in the past tense, as if there was an official start and end date. This conveniently encourages a disconnect between our colonial past and the ongoing colonization of indigenous peoples today.

Those who contest the existence of present-day colonization need only look to the struggle to protect c̓əsnaʔəm (the Marpole Midden). An ancient village and burial site located in what we now call Vancouver, Wendy Grant of Musqueam Nation describes it as “one of the most meaningful storehouses of the history and culture of our people.” Its recent history tells of the multiple layers of colonization and its enduring violence.

Since the 1880’s, sacred cultural artifacts and ancestral remains have been uncovered and removed during archeological excavations and urban expansion. Many of the human remains were given to museums around the world and, appallingly, some were discarded for lack of space. Early research on these artifacts fuelled false claims that they belonged to an Aboriginal group who were not indigenous but rather migrated to the area. The hegemony of “scientific” evidence denied and discredited traditional Musqueam history and knowledge.

Although c̓əsnaʔəm has been recognized as a Canadian Heritage Site since 1933, this has not protected it from urban development, most of which has occurred without consultation with the Musqueam and of which they have received little benefit. Most recently, the provincial government issued a permit to Century Group for a 108-unit condo development; construction has already uncovered an adult and two infant burials this year.

The Musqueam wish to preserve c̓əsnaʔəm as a public heritage park and had offered to exchange the site for another piece of land at no cost. Unsuccessful, they are now negotiating to buy the land for $4.8 million — a cruel irony given that the Musqueam (and other Coast Salish peoples) have never ceded or surrendered the titles to the traditional territories that are currently occupied by the city of Vancouver, including this site. With the provincial government delaying and undermining negotiations, the Musqueam and their supporters have resorted to more direct action, blocking construction and holding a 24-hour watch over the site while staging public protests on the streets of Vancouver.

The narrative in mainstream media also perpetuates deeply entrenched and normalized colonial attitudes. The CBC, for example, reported that the Musqueam “does not own the land“, but that “the site’s owner says the land has been in his family for more than 50 years…” CBC failed to mention, however, that Aboriginals were not even allowed to purchase property 50 years ago.

History is not repeating itself — it has never ended. The recent events at c̓əsnaʔəm is just one of the many resistance struggles against systemic forces of oppression that enable settlers to benefit at the expense of indigenous communities. Apologies for the colonial past only carry weight and meaning if they also challenge the present and are matched with broader actions of solidarity towards justice. The Musqueam have openly asked for support to protect c̓əsnaʔəm, inviting us to join the peaceful vigil at the site, sign the petition, and write to the Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources.

Though colonization can seem an amorphous and towering presence, these acts of solidarity, resistance, and community can build bridges and perhaps even alternatives to our colonial relationships.

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