FPCC’s Heritage Infrastructure Program supports First Nations to restore and protect sacred spaces like the Kwikwetlem Historical Cemetery.
The Kwikwetlem Historical Cemetery is nestled in a clearing framed by large maple. cottonwood and willow trees. Around its borders run the Coquitlam River, highways, pipeline construction, a residential park and neighbourhoods, and the high berms of dikes to redirect flood waters. Visiting this sacred space requires driving away from the Nation’s main village of slakəyánc (Coquitlam I.R. #1) to the other side of a busy highway, walking through an underpass tunnel, crossing a dike and manoeuvring a sloping footpath – all with a can of bear spray in hand. But when you arrive, the grassy clearing and tall forest that surrounds this space is all that is visible.
The cemetery is located on setɬamékmən (Coquitlam I.R.#2), between the Coquitlam River and Reeve Slough, and is the site of the Kwikwetlem Historical Cemetery Restoration Project. The first recorded burial at the cemetery dates back to 1881. The location was never the Nation’s preferred choice, as it is located on a floodplain and traditionally their people were buried on higher ground. They selected the highest land they could find that did not flood.
Reeves Slough near the cemetery site
In the 1990s, kʷikʷəƛ̓əm members began to observe seasonable flooding at the cemetery, which resulted in gravesites being flooded and markers lost. The Nation began work in the early 2000s to determine the reasons for the flooding, but the findings were inconclusive. Decades of impacts from development and water threaten not only the future use of the site but also its survival as a sacred resting space.
In the fall of 2022, a few FPCC staff met with Councillor George Chafee to visit the site and talk with him about the project. He inherited his work on the cemetery from his mother who spent years advocating for the protection of the site. Now he carries the role of rehabilitating the site as a safe resting place for years to come. This has been very challenging as local governments have often placed a higher priority on development than the kʷikʷəƛ̓əm people’s right to a respectful burial.
L-R Lucas Roque, FPCC Heritage Planner and Councillor George Chaffee, kʷikʷəƛ̓əm First Nation
In 2021, the project received multi-year support from FPCC’s Heritage Infrastructure Program. In the beginning, the plan was to improve accessibility, restore grave markers and include some infrastructure to support those who visit. The community’s plans had to change when they realized that they could not improve the site until the real threats of rising groundwater and increased seasonal flooding were addressed.
“When we saw what the water was doing, how high it was, we knew we had to fix it,” explains Councillor George Chaffee. “Our people knew a long time ago to put that cemetery there, on high ground. It never used to flood. But all the development, the dikes and now flooding from climate change has changed how the water moves. How can our community heal when we can’t bury our people in the right way?”
With support from FPCC and other funders, the Nation engaged PGL Environmental and Northwest Hydraulic Consultants to work with the Nation to conduct research to understand the rising water levels. They also installed monitoring wells around the perimeter of the cemetery to collect data on how the water moves underground. Members of the community have been trained on how to read the results so they have the skills to continue the research.
Water monitoring wells to measure water levels and flow
Initial technical studies determined that the source of the flooding is Reeves Slough. A promising new study is exploring whether the problems can be addressed by connecting Reeves Slough to the Coquitlam River. With this knowledge, there is hope for protecting the future of the cemetery.
“The funding provided by the First Peoples’ Cultural Council, as well as additional funding from First Nations Land Management Resource Centre, is crucial in our long-term work to create a safer sacred historical cemetery that allows us to protect, honour and show respect to those who are buried there,” says George. “I am very proud to be leading this project and to be giving a voice to our Elders and Ancestors so that their lives are remembered not only for today but for generations to come.”
Councillor George Chaffee, kʷikʷəƛ̓əm First Nation
The Nation is also using the funding to create a memorial that honours relatives, family members and Ancestors who are buried there. They also plan to make the sacred resting place more accessible for members to visit. The kʷikʷəƛ̓əm community is participating in these plans to ensure that cemetery projects share a community vision for the restoration of their Kwikwetlem Historical Cemetery.
As we walk from the cemetery, George tells us about his role as a protector of the site. He carries the weight of responsibility for how future generations will look back on him and what they will think about the work he is doing. One day he will be their Ancestor, and because of his work, the cemetery will still be there to share the story of the Kwikwetlem Historical Cemetery and how the community worked to protect it.
This project is supported by FPCC’s Heritage Infrastructure Program with funding from the First Peoples’ Cultural Foundation through the provincial government’s BC 150 Time Immemorial Grant Program.
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