The Cairns of Beacon Hill Park

By Jo Manning

I went up Beacon Hill. It is not far away, and I can go with my scooter, going bump, bump, up the rough road. I had a destination in mind and a few bumps would not deter me. 

Beacon Hill rises in a gentle slope from the sea, the highest point in the area. Long ago, there were fires at night to guide ships seeking harbour. That is why it is called Beacon.

It was also a sacred burial place for the First Nations people, who built circles of large stones along the ridge beyond. Later, after European settlement, some of these disappeared, or were rearranged without thought. 

Atop the mound one can see far across the sea to mountains, their peaks white now with winter snow. So far away, yet on a clear day, so near. Nearer is the meadow below the hill, an ancient garden where blue Camas lily was grown for food by the indigenous peoples. In spring it is a carpet of blue, outdoing the wild sea in beauty. But before this come the Daffodils, planted by settlers to remember the poet’s, “A host of golden Daffodils.”

When the settlers first saw the native people they thought they were savages. Their way of life seemed strange, they thought their art was primitive and crude. They didn’t understand their ‘why.’ Settlers treated indigenous people as less than others, and tried to kill what they were.

Awareness came slowly as settlers learned about local people, and listened to what they had to tell. They called them the First Nations, because they were here first, and it was their land. They told about the burial Cairns, the meaning of the stones, why they were arranged in circles to keep the dead spirits safe on their final journey. We feel their mystery as we walk along the cliff, haunted by a memory we do not understand, a memory of ancient wars fought, and passions, lost in time.

This place has always drawn me, even though the stones have been moved, now reformed into a partial circle, somehow they have kept their meaning, a link with a past we are only now beginning to know.

A cemetery has been sketched out there, with a fence of cedar rails protecting the stones. In their midst a man sits in quiet thought. I wonder if he is dreaming of the pre-colonial times.

The top of Beacon Hill is bare now. Until a short while ago a small pavilion stood, built by the City and now boarded up, lonely by itself with only a flagpole to keep it company. Now it is gone, and as reconciliation with First Nations people is in the air, a native Longhouse and Totem pole is promised, a place to tell us about our new friends, the people who were shunned for so long.

It grows dark. I turn my scooter and begin the bumpy ride down the hill. The next time I come, perhaps there will be a Longhouse and a Totem pole, but for now I look back for a moment at the bare hill, and at the Cairns, as they lie along the hillside in the fading light, waiting for a righting of wrongs, almost too late. 


Points North: The Great Diphthong Divide…

The Beacon… Then and Now