06/21/2014 06:22 EDT | Updated 08/23/2014 05:59 EDT

Edmonton Businessman Begins Build On B.C. Burial Ground

On National Aboriginal Day, B.C. First Nations and gulf islanders rallied and canoed around a tiny B.C. island cemetery that is being developed into the site of a luxury home.

Grace Islet, located in Salt Spring Island's Ganges Harbour, is presently owned by Barry Slawsky, an Edmonton-based businessman and former owner of the San Francisco Gifts chain of stores.

The site has been recognized as a burial ground by the B.C. Heritage Branch, but the province has issued Slawsky a permit to build a home on stilts, above the cairns.

Penelakut​ elder Laura Sylvester told CBC News the decision is "heart breaking."

Penalukut​ elders have reportedly asked for access to the property to remove any remains, but they say Slawsky has refused them access.

Salt Spring resident Phil Vernon says the wider community is working on a plan to purchase the property from Slawsky, and wants the Ministry of Forests to intervene now.

"Under the Heritage Act, the Minister, Minister Thomson — at any time — he can suspend the permit the owner has, until things are sorted out."

B.C.'s Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, who oversees heritage permits, was not available for comment Friday but, in a written response, Steve Thomson's office says there are no plans to preserve the site.

The office also said it is willing to try to convince Slawsky to allow elders like Sylvester to collect the bones and reinter them at another location.

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