Archeology work being conducted at the ancient Glenrose Canary site in Delta in the ealry 1980s (Delta Museum and Archives)

A Thoroughly Uncivilized Highway: Paving Ancient Burial Sites Just one of SFPR’s Many Insults


An aboriginal-led lawsuit is the latest potential roadblock for the highly controversial South Fraser Perimeter Road – an 80 km four-lane truck highway from Deltaport to Surrey in the early stages of construction.

Lawyer Jay Straith is representing Tsawwassen First Nation member Bertha Williams and William Burnstick from the Cree and Sioux Nations as they sue the provincial government for knowingly violating its own laws regarding heritage sites and burial grounds.  Straith recently obtained a leaked provincial government report – titled “South Fraser Perimeter Road Archeological Assessment” – which contains warnings from its own archeologists that the route would disturb 8,000-10,000 year old First Nations burial sites and artifacts along the river, particularly in the area of the old Glenrose Cannery.

Straith told CTV News, “If this was going through a Christian graveyard, a Jewish graveyard, an Islamic graveyard, all hell would be breaking loose. It’s going through a First Nations graveyard that goes back thousands of years, and they seem to say, ‘It’s not an issue.'”

Straith is suing the provincial government for violating its own BC Heritage Conservation Act. He will be seeking an injunction to halt construction, as work is just now underway to demolish the old cannery and excavate the site. The act states:

“No one is to damage, excavate, dig in, desecrate or alter a burial place…or a site that contains artifacts…or other physical evidence of human habitation or use before 1846.” (Section 13-2)

As co-plaintiff William Burnstick told media at a recent press conference, “They’re completely aware of what they’re doing and they’re doing it anyway.”   

Some three years ago now I spent an afternoon at the Glenrose site, beneath the Alex Fraser Bridge, to hear about the impacts of the SFPR on ancient artifacts. An archeology professor from UBC reaffirmed the rich cultural value of the location, as did members in attendance from the Musqueam Band – who have unfortunately decided to bite their tongue this time around, ostensibly for political reasons.

The destruction of priceless archeological and heritage sites is just one of the many knocks against this preposterous highway. A number of years ago a friend of mine, Greg Hoover, and another gentleman, retired road builder Olav Naas, together proposed an alternate route that was clearly far too sensible for this government to appreciate (or lacked the sweetheart land flip deals the SFPR brought for their pals – more on that later).

The Hoover-Naas Route would have used an existing rail right-of-way, thus requiring virtually no farmland be destroyed, and would have traveled at some distance from the schools and residences the SFPR passes close by, thus minimizing the health impacts of air pollution from trucks (the government’s chosen SFPR route skirts a dozen schools and thousands of people in their homes). Among the gems buried deep within the government’s own 2,000-plus page submission for the project to the BC Environmental Assessment Office was this little nugget:

“With increased air pollution there can possibly be increased employment (e.g., in the health sector) because of the economic activity associated with correcting the results of its impacts.” (Technical Volume 16, page 39)

No, that’s not a typo. Your government also knows it will make people sick from increased air pollution emanating from a poorly planned highway, but – wait! – there’s a silver lining: the heath care industry will make more money treating those sick school children and the elderly!

Moreover, both the local Scientific Advisory Panel charged with overseeing Burns Bog conservation program and the federal Ministry of Environment concluded the highway would have disastrous impacts on the health and very survival of the Bog – critical to the Fraser River’s ecosystems and the region’s carbon emissions and air quality. The federal agency called these impacts “significant and irreversible” (that’s scientist-speak for really, really bad).

This is of course on top of the considerable increase to the region’s carbon emissions from the highway and the some 1,000 acres of farmland that stand to be lost, in reality (far more than the government cares to admit).

Above all, according to Mr. Naas – a retired Delta-based construction manager who has more experience building in the area than anyone (he oversaw the building of the George Massey Tunnel and the rail line south of Burns Bog) – building in or around the bog is pure folly. The billion-plus price tag given to the project is laughable when you consider what’s involved in building through bog lands whose depth varies wildly throughout. By Mr. Nass’ own calculations, parts of the road could take well over a decade to complete, due to the enormous amount of pre-load material they will likely require.

And here’s the topper: all along the route, pals of the Liberal government have got sweetheart deals flipping land to be used for the highway at huge profits. One such lucky Liberal supporter, Vancouver lawyer Jeffrey Merrick, made a cool $1.9 million profit in under a year, selling a piece of industrial property near the Bog to the government one week before the project’s official announcement in 2005 – while ninety year old ladies who pioneered the community (I interviewed them at the time) were left twisting in the wind, wondering for years what was to become of their homes, before being forced to sell at bargain prices.

So you see, everything about this road stinks to high heaven – not the least of which is the blatant disrespect for ancient cultural artifacts, burial grounds and our own laws governing the protection of them. These are the crass depths to which our BC Liberal government is dragging us.

But this latest legal action – not to mention the sorry financial state of this government, coupled with the severe construction challenges that await the project, still at a very early stage, relatively speaking – offers yet another opportunity for the public and courts to take a long, hard look at this highway and scrap it before more damage is done.

To those who would say it’s a done deal, recall that both the Spadina Expressway in Ontario and the 1970s freeway slated to wipe out Chinatown, Gastown, Strathcona, huge swaths of downtown Vancouver and its waterfront were well under construction when the plug was pulled due to strong public opposition. As someone who lives in a hundred year-old heritage building that wouldn’t be here today were that highway to have gone through, I, for one, appreciate the fact my forebears didn’t throw in the towel as soon as the backhoes started digging.

Lesson: The SFPR is far from built (really far, if you listen to Mr. Naas) – so take your pick of reasons to shut it down. I suppose trashing a 8,000-10,000 year-old archeological site is as good as any.


About Damien Gillis

Damien Gillis is a Vancouver-based documentary filmmaker with a focus on environmental and social justice issues - especially relating to water, energy, and saving Canada's wild salmon - working with many environmental organizations in BC and around the world. He is the co-founder, along with Rafe Mair, of The Common Sense Canadian, and a board member of both the BC Environmental Network and the Haig-Brown Institute.

8 thoughts on “A Thoroughly Uncivilized Highway: Paving Ancient Burial Sites Just one of SFPR’s Many Insults

  1. And all the while Damien, not asking us what we would like to see, but telling us “this is good for you.”

    Anytime this present government tells me something is “good for me” I find myself either reaching for my wallet or I feel in need of a shower.

  2. Older than the Pyramids. Yes, Dan – that helps put this travesty in perspective…Unlike the thieves who loot the world’s historic sites, in BC, the brigands are our elected officials and their friends – and it’s a combination of ravaging both cultural and natural treasures.

  3. Thanks for such a great and concise article. It’s a really complicated story and has taken a lot to get to the bottom of a very convoluted (purposely I’d say) process that involves the Liberal government and their friends who have made millions off the backs of hardworking, taxpaying BC residents.
    The tentacles of the Gateway program reach into the very heights levels of government and it’s friends. The agricultural land reserve and the fight to preserve and save Burns Bog threw a monkey wrench into the longterm plans of the connected few. Thank you for getting this travesty out to the the public. Certainly the mainstream media have not been interested in exposing the corruption involved in this project. Thank you for not giving up on this issue and I implore others to join the fight.

  4. Short sea shipping……moving containers by water is the most efficient and least polluting….this truck traffic has little to do with our day to day transportation needs, a minor tweak of the existing roads would fix the problems….the bulk of this traffic is to transport goods that come from far away and are going even farther away….why not barging?….my guess is no friends of government could make money on real estate flips

  5. More lies and deciet to help fill friends and families wonder there is no money for healthcare and education…it just get’s more incredible all the time

  6. This pretty much reveals the vision of the provincial government with regard to the environment, when they decide to decimate a burial ground as old as the Pyramids.

    Not to mention the continued genocide of First Nations peoples and their culture.

    One thing this Liberal Government is concerned with only; it is the one thing they are sorely lacking.


    So they make a bunch of money with this new highway and the money is used in the health care system to fix the problems the highway created. Please show me the benefit, I can’t seem to see it anywhere…..

    I am not much of an engineer but I believe it will be impossible to stabilize that amount of material (backfill, road base, and asphalt cap) over top of a bog. It will always be in a state of flux or flex as the bog expands and contracts summer to winter.

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