The history of Coast Salish peoples on Burnaby Mountain


I respectfully acknowledge that we are on the traditional, unceded territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish),  Sel̓íl̓witulh (Tsleil-Waututh), and Kwikwetlem (kwikwəƛ̓ əm) Nations.

Every student has probably heard those words in some shape or form during their time at SFU. Most campus events have the main speaker or host acknowledge that we are on land that is not rightfully ours. But have you ever stopped to wonder what those words really mean, or what the history is behind the land that our campus is built on?

To the best of our knowledge, The Peak has compiled a brief history of the Coast Salish peoples of Burnaby Mountain. Please note that this history is by no means comprehensive, and is lacking in firsthand interviews from Indigenous peoples as there was a lack of responses to requests for interviews by time of publication. If you have any feedback or corrections regarding this article, please email

Indigenous Cultures on Burnaby Mountain

The term “Coast Salish peoples” refers to members of the Salish family. “The Salish language family is comprised of 23 distinct languages,” reads an excerpt from the SFU Bill Reid Centre website, “which are spoken in interior and coastal British Columbia, the state of Washington, and in small areas of Montana, Idaho, and the Oregon Coast.

“While [the term] ‘Coast Salish’ is certainly appropriate to use, it should be noted that it is a linguistic term that refers to the Coast Salish language family, which is comprised of many First Nations,” said William Lindsay, director of the Office for Aboriginal Peoples at SFU.

The history of First Nations people on Burnaby Mountain goes back thousands of years. “The mountain was used as a place to gather arbutus bark. There were hunting and gathering activities,” said Ron Johnston, director of the Office of Indigenous Education at SFU and member of the Squamish nation.

Lindsay passed on information to The Peak from Christopher Lewis, who is a member of SFU’s Board of Governors. Lewis, a member of Chiefs and Counsel for the Squamish nation, mentioned that the shoreline of the mountain was a traditional sea urchin gathering place.

However, four nations shared resources and utilized the land of Burnaby Mountain in various ways. The land on which SFU occupies is home to the territories of the following nations:

xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam): Having been located in the Greater Vancouver area for several thousands of years, Musqueam have ties to an area now referred to as the Marpole midden, which is located at the mouth of the North Arm of the Fraser River, where their existence has been documented for over 4,000 years. Those ties to the Fraser River are still strong today, as they currently live on a reserve located south of Marine Drive near the mouth of the river.

With files from the Musqueam Indian Band website

Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish): Some of the the Squamish village sites date back 3,000 years. According to the Squamish Nation website, their territory is comprised of areas including “Vancouver, Burnaby, and New Westminster, all of the cities of North Vancouver and West Vancouver, Port Moody, and all of the District of Squamish, and the Municipality of Whistler. These boundaries embrace all of Howe Sound, Burrard Inlet and English Bay as well as the rivers and creeks that flow into these bodies of water.” Many of the locations hold a particular significance for the Squamish nation because of their relationship with the land. For instance, Johnston mentioned that, “[Burnaby Mountain] is right in the centre of Coast Salish territory, and it was also significant because of its closeness to the Creator.”

With files from the Squamish nation website

Sel̓íl̓witulh (Tsleil-Waututh): The ancestors of the Tsleil-Waututh people occupied a vast area of land in Greater Vancouver, ranging from areas around the Burrard Inlet, Deep Cove in North Vancouver, Coquitlam Lake, Howe Sound, to south of the Fraser River. One of the recent issues that they have been involved with has been speaking to government officials about the approval of the Kinder Morgan pipeline. Tsleil-Waututh Chief Maureen Thomas said in an interview with The Huffington Post, “We’ve tried to do everything in the right way. We’ve always tried to take the high road. We’re not here to disrupt the rest of Canada. We’re not here to cause problems for individuals.”

With files from the Tsleil-Waututh Nation website and The Huffington Post BC

kwikwəƛ̓ əm (Kwikwetlem): The Kwikwetlem First Nation Sto:lo people live in Coquitlam, BC. Their nation has two reserves, one of which sits at the mouth of the Coquitlam River which drains into the Fraser River, and the other 2 km north of this location. In November 2015, working in partnership with the other Coast Salish nations listed above and Kwantlen Polytechnic University, the Kwikwetlem unveiled plans to create a technical skills and trades training program for First Nations peoples over the next three years. “I can see this being of such great benefit to all future participants that will take the skills training,” said Kwikwetlem Nation Councillor Ed Hall. “I am unable to emphasize the magnitude and importance this will be to our Nation going into the future.”

With files from the Kwikwetlem First Nation website and the BC Provincial Government website

Where SFU Comes into the Picture

When the university was being built in 1965, Burnaby Mountain was not part of any First Nations reserves, although people from many nations lived on reserves nearby. “In the 1960s, First Nations were emerging out from under the thumb of the government, despite the fact that the Indian Act and the government had a lot of power,” said Lindsay. “They weren’t asked for their input on building the university. The First Peoples had no say, really, on what was happening on the mountain at that particular time.”

“It was similar to how our Squamish community had villages in Stanley Park,” added Johnston. “And a park was created, and when those were [built], there wasn’t much consultation [with the peoples living there],” Lindsay supplied.

Lindsay also mentioned that the government didn’t even acknowledge Aboriginal titles until the early 1990s, when he, himself, was a university student. Until then, the government denied that Aboriginal title existed, and thus SFU did not acknowledge it either.

Other forms of subtle discrimination within the university are unfortunately still present today. Sarah Guraliuk wrote a piece in The Peak last semester about how she had to provide “acceptable proof” of her heritage in order to apply for scholarships. “By requiring documentation to access resources allocated for Indigenous people, universities create a hierarchy of who is the most “authentic” and who is less so,” Guraliuk wrote. “Those who cannot produce said documentation are not only excluded from the resources, but must also deal with the emotional toil of being rejected from one’s own culture.”

There is also the fact that I am currently in a colonialism class within the department of communication that is not being taught by an Indigenous professor. While hiring Aboriginal faculty is underway, I am missing the opportunity to learn firsthand from somebody who has experienced the issues about which I’m learning.

While my class is taught with humble acknowledgement that we do not identify with the struggles of Indigenous peoples, I can’t help but wonder what I am missing by not having an Indigenous professor teach the course.

What’s the next step for reconciliation?

Lindsay did acknowledge that SFU’s relations with First Nations people have improved tremendously over the last 10 years. There is an Aboriginal Reconciliation Council, of which he and Johnston are members. The university is currently in the process of consultation, asking the community how they should respond to reconciliation. They have set aside $9 million that will be dedicated for this project and will implement those responses.

One of the major points of feedback from the consultation has been the creation of more Aboriginal spaces here at SFU. The creation of a celebration hall and expansion of the Indigenous Student Centre were given as suggestions for how to do so.

Bryan Myles is the interim director of the Bill Reid Centre, which is located in Saywell Hall and contains a collection of photographs, media, and documentary films with the intention of bringing Indigenous cultural heritage into a new media environment. He is currently developing an app that will provide a tour of the different Coast Salish territories on the mountain. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to have a tour that people could take on their mobile device, and go out and learn about these places, and actually hear their Indigenous names not those given to them by colonizers,’” he said.

We’ve made a lot of strides, but reconciliation is going to be a long and multi-layered process. It is going to require that we consciously make space for Indigenous people to tell their stories, and let them define what reconciliation looks like. Maybe our history will look different once we do so.


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