Music festival played on despite government, Huron-Wendat opposition over possible sacred sites

“It’s totally disgusting to First Nations.” Music festival goes ahead on possible Huron Wendat burial ground.

Kenneth Jackson
APTN National News
ORO-MEDONTE, Ont. – As The Killers played their last song Sunday wrapping up another year of the massive WayHome music festival, the event’s legal troubles played on.

The township says it is investigating the festival for allegedly breaking its permit for the second year in a row, allowing 35,000 campers to set up their tents on portions of the property outside of what the permit allowed.

Only this year there was something more at stake.

The 500-acre property may have sacred Indigenous villages and burials, something learned earlier this year.

The township’s permit, like last year, only allowed the festival to operate on 92 acres of the 500-acre property.

The festival’s owner – Burl’s Creek Event Grounds – had applied to the township for a permit allowing complete access.

But the township said it would only approve the full permit if the Huron-Wendat gave the go-ahead.

That’s because the Wendat believe their ancestors used that land up until about 1650, about 20 minutes north of Barrie, Ont.

And where the Wendat lived, they also buried their dead.

It would be “a risk the Nation simply cannot take” and didn’t give their support.

The province opposed the festival, too, because the Wendat are potentially right.

An archaeologist hired by Burl’s Creek found there was potential for sacred Indigenous sites on the property, and recommended further tests of the soil, known as a Stage 2 archaeology assessment, throughout portions of the property in a March 2 report.

That report found there are two confirmed pre-contact Indigenous archaeology sites within one kilometre of the Burl’s Creek property.

At those sites, pottery fragments, stone axes and a human skull were found.

‎Based on this, the province couldn’t support the full permit according to a letter sent to Burl’s Creeks’ archaeologist Jamie Lemon of Golder Associates on May 18 from the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Sport.

“The cumulative effects of driving and parking on an archaeological site can include rutting, soil displacement and compaction which can be significant on as-yet-to-be discovered archaeological sites,” said Blair Rohaly, manager of the MTCS archaeology unit.

But still the township issued the restricted permit on July 6, a few weeks before the three-day festival started, with booked acts including Arcade Fire and popular Indigenous group A Tribe Called Red.‎

Tents use
Campers at WayHome Friday.

Mayor Harry Hughes said the special events permit was issued because the 92-acre portion was properly zoned.

“They are camping and they are parking on land that has not been zoned and they’ve been given notice if that does occur we would enforce our bylaw. That’s what will happen,” said Hughes Saturday.

He said the council had some idea the festival was going to use all the property, as similar issues happened last year on the site resulting in fines of $200,000. ‎

“The possibility of them using the land again was a possibility that could well occur,” said Hughes. “Our bylaw officers are on site and they are monitoring the area.”

He said bylaw officers were keeping notes to file a report to council for consideration of laying fines for allegedly breaking the permit.

He said the decision to issue the permit was one council shouldn’t have had to make.

Burl’s Creek had applied to the Ontario Municipal Board for a temporary use bylaw before the Stage 2 assessment, hoping to postpone it to the fall, when the festival season was over.

The OMB is a place to settle municipal disputes and agreed to hear the case.

But midway through the two-week hearing in the spring it was disrupted when Burl’s Creek planner had to be away for vacation, according lawyer David Donnelly, who represents the community group Save Oro that has been fighting to stop the festival for two years.

The OMB postponed the hearing to October 25, leaving the decision to the township.

Donnelly doesn’t think the township should have issued the restricted permit based opposition from MTCS and the Wendat.

“It’s totally disgusting to First Nations,” said Donnelly Sunday in a phone interview from Prince Edward Island where he’s vacationing. “The province of Ontario (MTCS) told the concert promoter do not hold camping and parking as part of the concerts.”

Donnelly said he wrote MTCS July 13 asking a stop work order based on the Ontario Heritage Act, which is supposed to protect sites subject to archaeology assessments.

“We request your immediate attention to the above requests,” Donnelly wrote, but the concert proceeded as scheduled.

Festival-goers at the WayHome music festival Friday.
Festival-goers at the WayHome music festival Friday.

According to the letter, the Chippewas of Rama First Nation does not oppose the assessment waiting to the fall. But during the OMB hearings Lemon, the archaeologist for Burl’s Creek, testified the site and potential burials are most likely Wendat.

The Rama would have been involved because they are the closest First Nation to the site which needs to be consulted as per the Heritage act. APTN wrote Rama council Sunday seeking confirmation, but haven’t heard back.

APTN spoke to Grand Chief Konrad Sioui Sunday and he confirmed the Wendat didn’t approve waiting to the festival season was over until the Stage 2 was completed. Sioui said they were disappointed the festival went ahead.

On Friday, local residents of Save Oro held a protest across the road from the main entrance, at the home of Bruce Wiggins.

Save Oro has complained of noise from the concerts and opposed the land being used for concerts as property is largely zoned farm land, outside of the 92 acres.

Wiggins said ignoring those complaints is bad enough, but add in the new revelations of the sacred sites, it’s all just too much for him.

“I want the respect First Nations deserve. There should be a Stage 2 already, but no they are desecrating it even further by having these events on the land,” he said Friday.

Save Oro protesters Friday greeting people as they arrived to WayHome.
Save Oro protesters Friday greeting people as they arrived to WayHome.

Burl’s Creek didn’t respond to questions Sunday on using land outside of the permit for camping and parking, or what precautions the WayHome festival was taking to protect the lands requiring additional archaeological testing.

In fact, Burl’s Creek stopped responding to APTN after ordering reporters to leave the grounds Saturday. A spokeswoman said they were upset APTN filmed inside the festival for a story on a protest held by Save Oro Friday afternoon.

Inside, reporters filmed campers meandering around the grounds and throughout large fields of tents.

APTN also had its accreditation revoked by WayHome as it was originally given to do a story on A Tribe Called Red who performed at the festival Saturday.

‎On Friday, Burl’s Creek did provide this statement:

‘Although it is disappointing, it does not surprise us that Save Oro would inappropriately and disingenuously take their own notes from our OMB case out of context to deliberately mislead the public.  Burl’s Creek Event Grounds has been hosting concerts and major events since 1984 and the original footprint, which is used as the main entertainment spaces for Boots and Hearts and WayHome is all zoned accordingly,’ the statement said.

‘Having applied for temporary rezoning in April 2015, we expected our OMB hearing to be completed prior to this festival season. Unfortunately, that is not the case.  No archeological sites or artifacts have been identified on the properties.  We have been following due process in regard to First Nation’s interests and will continue to engage with them as we work though our rezoning.’

ATCR also canceled their interview after seeing the protest story saying they didn’t know enough about the issue to comment. Their performance was on land properly zoned and cleared for concerts. ‎

APTN wrote them again Sunday as it obtained more information, including the letter from the MTCS opposing the full permit. ‎

“We do not have any further comments on this matter but appreciate you are doing this investigation work,” said manager Guillaume Decouflet.

The bylaw investigation isn’t the only one facing Burl’s Creek, as their promoter for WayHome is subject to a private prosecution launched in December in the provincial offence court in Orillia by local resident Wendy McKay.

McKay alleges alteration of lands without approval, such as roads through the property, and violation of the bylaw over camping and parking.

A justice of the peace is scheduled to rule whether the private prosecution can proceed Sept. 14.

Another festival is scheduled for early August that will see the biggest names in country music converage on the lands and thousands of people to catch the concerts.

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