The province is being urged to return a sacred burial ground in Abbotsford to the Sumas (Semá:th) First Nation, following years of negotiations.

Chief Dalton Silver of the Sumas First Nation said the 160-acre piece of land off of Atkinson Road contains a mass burial site known as Lightning Rock, where it’s believed thousands of people may have been laid to rest during a smallpox epidemic dating back to the late 1700s.

“The importance of protecting this site to our people is very significant. I can’t really explain in detail about the cultural and spiritual importance for our people to protect the resting places of our ancestors,” Silver said.

Indigenous leaders joined members of the Sumas First Nation at the site to call on the government to reach a settlement with the landowner, who also wants the land to be returned.

The current owner of the land, John Glazema, said the original plan was to develop the property, until he learned about the burial ground.

“We’re going to do what’s right with respect to these burial grounds, so we’re not going to dig it up. But in turn, the province, being aware of this for the last four years, has done nothing,” Glazema said.

Glazema said he wants the province to compensate costs of around $11 million for the land. He added it was the province that ultimately green-lighted the development years ago, after the property was flagged under the Heritage Conservation Act.

People also signed on to a letter to be delivered to the premier at a later date, including Grand Chief Stewart Phillip with the Union of BC Indian Chiefs.

“The actions of the province are unconscionable, disgraceful, in their efforts to not deal, to continue dithering,” Stewart said.

Abbotsford South MLA and Speaker of the Legislature Daryl Plecas said it’s an opportunity to demonstrate a commitment to reconciliation.

“This is a complete no-brainer. Our only task ought to be, how do we get to yes on this,” Plecas said.

Former lieutenant governor Steven Point said the Sto:Lo Nation has watched sites like Lightning Rock be destroyed for too long.

“We will no longer stand aside and watch this demolition process continue. We will stop this kind of development and we expect that the government will stand with us,” Point said.

In an emailed statement, the province said it acknowledges Lightning Rock is a sacred place.

“We have had extensive discussions with Semá:th and the landowner, and we continue to work to find a solution to protect the Lightning Rock site,” the statement reads.

The province added currently the site isn’t automatically protected under the Heritage Conservation Act.

“We have respected the request of the Nation that the site not be disturbed. That has meant we have been unable to obtain the archaeological evidence required for the protection,” the province said.

The ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation told CTV News Vancouver that Minister Scott Fraser is visiting communities outside of Metro Vancouver, and is not available for interviews.