Peguis First Nation wants peat mining shut down near Washow Bay, north of Riverton, after, it says, several sacred artifacts were uncovered at the site.
The First Nation is angry the peat mining company -- Sunterra Horticulture Canada -- burned most of the artifacts after they were discovered. A traditional drum was seized by a Sunterra supervisor, the band alleges, and the rest of the objects -- including drumsticks and a drum stand -- were ordered destroyed.
However, some drumsticks were spared destruction by a company employee, who happens to be a member of the Peguis band. The objects were eventually turned over to the Manitoba Museum for safekeeping.
The discovery of the artifacts was made more than a year ago, but only recently came to light. Mike Sutherland, a Peguis band councillor, said Sunterra breached the Manitoba Heritage Act when it failed to halt production at the site to allow for an archeological assessment and inventory. He wants the provincial government to step in to ensure that happens.
Sutherland said he met with Conservation Minister Gord Mackintosh on Tuesday to apprise him of the situation. He also gave Mackintosh photos of the objects that were taken before most were destroyed.
Peguis First Nation considers the land that is being mined for peat on the Washow peninsula part of its traditional territory. Sutherland said there may be "hundreds" more artifacts in the area and possibly burial grounds.
The artifacts that were discovered may have been placed there as part of a ceremony upon a band member's death, returning them to "Mother Earth," Sutherland said.
A spokesman for Mackintosh said in an email Thursday an initial review of the photos by the provincial archeological assessment unit indicates the items "are recent and not historic artifacts." He said government officials would explore the issue further with Peguis and Sunterra.
But Sutherland said the objects' age -- he says they might have been only a few decades old -- is not what makes them sacred.
"If we were to go and burn a cross at a Catholic graveyard or desecrate a burial site, what do you think would happen to us? We would be thrown in jail," he said.
No one could be reached for comment Thursday at Sunterra's Riverton office.
Sunterra is in the process of applying to extract peat on land adjacent to its Beaver Point operation. The company has informed the province its current mine won't be productive in about a year.
Last Friday, the government granted licences to two other companies -- Sun Gro Horticulture Canada Ltd. and Berger Peat Moss Ltd. -- to operate quarries in the same area before it placed a moratorium on new peat licences, pending an industry review.
Sunterra's application to expand its Interlake operation was the only exception the government made to the peatland-development freeze.
It said it was doing so because the company's application was already undergoing an environmental review.
Peguis leaders say expanding peat mining in the area affects their ability to exercise their rights, including for treaty entitlement land selection. They say the Sunterra expansion would contribute to the drying out of the Washow peninsula, where the two other mines were licensed last week. Cottagers, environmental groups and affected First Nations had also opposed the new licences.
"Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship, and the Crown are simply disregarding Peguis First Nation, despite being provided with our technical analysis, and knowing our section 35, treaty and TLE rights in this matter," Peguis Chief Glenn Hudson said in a prepared statement.
Sutherland said photos of the artifacts were taken before Sunterra became aware of them. Members of the First Nation held a ceremony at the site before informing the company of their existence, he said.
An official at the Manitoba Museum confirmed late Thursday the institution was holding some drumsticks for the First Nation in its sacred artifacts case.
He said the museum would not offer an opinion as to their age or significance.