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'It’s ours': Kwikwetlem First Nation on future of Riverview Hospital site

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The redevelopment planning process was quietly halted earlier this year, and now the Kwikwetlem First Nation is speaking up about what they’d like to see happen on the land where the Riverview Hospital operated for a century.

With a history spanning thousands of years, representatives say the 244-acre parcel sits squarely in their core, ancestral and unceded territory in Coquiltam. 

“It's ours, we want to come home,” said George Chaffee, a councillor and knowledge keeper with the KFN. “Our voice has been missing not just here, but through the whole watershed for almost 120 years. My community’s watched it as it's transformed and had no say in what it looked like.”

That began to change in 2012 after the closure of the hospital when the KFN got a seat at the table with a parallel master planning process for future re-development of the site and a big voice in the consultation process, but shifted dramatically in 2021: the Kwikwetlem inked an agreement making them equal partners with the provincial government, formally renaming the area Sumeqwuela in the process.

When CTV News asked what the nation wanted to see done with the lands and whether they wanted sections of the site turned over to them, the entire parcel, or some other arrangement, Chaffee said that’s undecided.

“The community’s never been asked these questions before and it’s something the community is working on right now,” he said. ”We are talking to our elders, we are talking to our community that’s there and we are talking about the future that’s here with BC Housing but that journey’s just starting.”

A HISTORY SPANNING MILLENIA

BC Housing has acknowledged the Indigenous history on the site spans thousands of years and Kwikwetlem leaders say despite the gap during the hospital years, there are still ties to Sumiqwuela, which means “Place of the Great Blue Heron” in their language.

“It was a place where there was refuge and resource and so many different things,” explained Chief Ed Hall.

While berry picking, hunting, and lumber retrieval happened in recent memory, historically the community would harvest plants for medicinal, spiritual and decorative purposes and seek out cedar trees that didn’t grow in the floodplains where the community currently has offices. Cedar was used in the production of textiles, ornamentation, canoes and structures, but it’s not clear if anyone consistently lived at Sumiqwuela.

“When the land got cleared (for the Hospital for the Mind at Mount Coquitlam), it may have disturbed old archaeological sites and whatnot and archaeology back then didn’t have as much of a regulation to it as it does nowadays,” said Hall, who added the location high above the floodplain means it has always been a place of refuge during flooding events and times of war. 

Hall is greatly encouraged by the Indigenous artwork slowly being incorporated into upgrades on the Simqwuela grounds, including the Red Fish Healing Centre, which was named in honour of the nation. 

A HIGH-PROFILE MATTER OF RECONCILIATION

The partnership agreement and how BC Housing proceeds with the KFN at Sumiqwuela on behalf of the province will come with considerable scrutiny, and not just because there continue to be calls to repurpose the hospital building still in good condition for housing or treatment for those struggling with severe mental illness and addiction. 

It also represents a high-profile and urban reconciliation effort in accordance with the principles of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, which the provincial government signed last year.

“It took us centuries to end up where we are and there’s been harm done in that process, there’s been injustices done in that century, and it takes time to be able to understand how we can move forward,” said BC Housing Semiqwuela Land Development Director, Lauren English. “Any changes on site will be considered through Kwikwetlem First Nations and BC Housing’s partnership. As of today there’s nothing proposed.”

Chaffee described the process as hard, but worthwhile with great progress made already.

“I think working together with new partners in this way shows the rest of the province this is the way you do this,” he said. “This is how you walk together.”

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