Just a few minutes from the bustling Park Royal Shopping Centre sits a quiet, isolated patch of hill that serves as the Squamish Nation Burial Ground. Tucked away amongst the residential milieu of private homes and apartments, this sacred site is the final resting place of many who have belonged to this indigenous community. The Squamish Nation Traditional Territory, comprised of 6,732 square kilometers, includes a significant portion of the Lower Mainland, including the North Shore. This unique burial setting features a small number of private graves. Among the burial markers and totem poles sits a large house-like structure made of stone: the Joe Capilano Mausoleum. It stands as a monument not only to a prominent community leader, but also to his activism and the fascinating historical narrative that envelops it.
Originally known as Sa7plek (Sahp-luk), Joe Capilano was born in 1854 (or 1840, depending who you ask) outside Squamish. While not much is known of his early life, he is said to have grown up in a reserve near the Capilano River and trained as a sawmill labourer and carver in North Vancouver (known back then as Moodyville). Prior to the influx of Roman Catholic missionaries to the Lower Mainland in the 1860s, Sa7plek had been raised in traditional Squamish teachings. By the time he married Mary Agnes Líxwelut in May 1872, however, his Catholic beliefs were steadfast and he chose to be baptized. His wife was a celebrated genealogist in her own right, and her grandfather is said to have welcomed George Vancouver to the Burrard Inlet in 1792. Sa7plek was championed by Roman Catholic officials in the area who saw him as a prime candidate for leadership due to his unique mix of Catholic and indigenous education. He was poised, they believed, to influence the spread of Catholicism across other Native communities. In 1895, he succeeded Chief Láwa as leader of the Squamish.
In 1906, after many ineffective attempts to negotiate with the Provincial government, the driven Sa7plek travelled to Ottawa to meet with Sir Wilfred Laurier, and then on to London to petition King Edward VII. Along with him were elders Chief Charley Isipaymilt (Cowichan) and Chief Basil David (Shuswap); all three seeking improved Native-White relations in BC. Specifically, they sought a lift on the potlatch ban, hunting and fishing restrictions, and various imposed regulations that limited self-sufficiency and inhibited their cultural and socio-economic traditions. Land claims were also a major issue. The leaders felt that their autonomy and titles had been severely challenged by white settlers. It was in preparation for this trip that Sa7plek was given his new name, Kiyapalanexw (Capilano) – a hereditary title meant to emphasize his high status to the Crown. In London, the men were awarded 15 minutes of the King’s time, though their petition was not formally presented to the monarch. An excerpt of their letter reads:
To His Most Gracious Majesty King Edward VII,
Perhaps we are amongst the most remote of your majesty’s subjects, yet we give place to none in our loyalty and devotion to your majesty’s person, and to the British crown.
Our home is beyond the great Atlantic ocean, beyond the great inland seas of Canada, beyond the vast wheat-growing prairies of Manitoba, beyond the majestic Rocky mountains, away on shores of the Pacific ocean.
[…] Sir James Douglas told us that large numbers of white people would come to our country, and in order to prevent trouble he designated large tracts of land for our use, and told us that if any white people encroached upon those lands he would remove them, which he did [. . .] But when Sir James Douglas was no longer governor other white people settled upon our lands and titles were issued to them by the British Columbian government. We have appealed to the Dominion government which is made up of men elected by the white people who are living on our lands […]
We have our families to keep the same as the white man, and we know how to work as well as the white man; then why should we not have the same privileges as the white man?
In the end, no discernable changes were implemented (though they did send him away with some autographed portraits). Chief Capilano subsequently severed ties with the Catholic Church and banned them from his settlement, feeling that they did not support his mission for equality and land rights. In turn, Catholic officials felt Capilano was becoming too radical – he did no longer impress the sort of influence they had originally planned for him. The government’s inaction ultimately led to the creation of province-wide political organizations including the Indian Tribes of the Province of British Columbia, the Nisga’a Land Committee, and the Allied Tribes of British Columbia, among others. Chief Capilano’s initiative, though immediately unsuccessful, inspired new generations of Native people to take charge of their political agency.
Despite being pegged as a “troublemaker” by some non-Native critics for his repeated attempts to organize tribes, upon his death in 1910, Native leaders and communities celebrated Chief Capilano as a powerful leader and icon. Today, the North Shore features many landmarks bearing his name, including Capilano Lake, River, Road, and University.