Groups seek to ensure buried are honoured

Piles of dirt were set aside in the New Westminster secondary parking lot after it was dug up by the City of New Westminster to hook up fire hydrants and watermains along Eighth Street before the work was stopped because of the possibility of remains might be there. - Grant Granger/NewsLeader
Piles of dirt were set aside in the New Westminster secondary parking lot after it was dug up by the City of New Westminster to hook up fire hydrants and watermains along Eighth Street before the work was stopped because of the possibility of remains might be there.
— image credit: Grant Granger/NewsLeader

At least two organizations want to witness the sifting of dirt recently dug up by the city at New Westminster secondary to ensure any human remains from a former cemetery are treated with respect.

Earlier this year, the city replaced watermains along the west side of Eighth Street, but when crews tried to hook them up with fire hydrants and NWSS’s water system they were stopped by a consultant from Golder Associates, an environmental firm hired by the New Westminster school district in the planning for a replacement for NWSS.

The dirt that had already been pulled up was put in several piles in a corner of the school parking lot along the Tenth Avenue side.

Two groups, the B.C. Association for Community Living (BCACL) and the Canadians For Reconciliation Society (CFRS), say they want to witness the dirt being sifted. In addition, they are calling for the school district and city to have a process that is respectful and honours those buried on the site.

Prior to the construction of the current school in the late 1940s, the land at the Eighth Street and Tenth Avenue corner was used as a cemetery for various communities in New Westminster. This included people from the Woodlands and Riverview mental institutions, as well as those considered at the time to be indigents on the fringes of society, which includes people the BCACL represents.

“What’s been difficult is because the site has been disturbed and the ownership shifted, in my opinion unlawfully, those people have been dishonoured over and over again,” said BCACL executive director Faith Bodnar. “We want to ensure things are done respectfully.”

Bodnar said there is virtually no way to start digging on the land without coming across remains.

“So much of what has happened here has been confusing and poorly communicated. It would be an opportunity to open this up to community organizations. It’s been difficult to get consistent information and to get timely information,” said Bodnar. “It just seems there has not been a real plan. It’s time to get us all together.”

The challenge for the school district is to get so many groups—including many First Nations bands and several other community organizations with connections to the cemetery—together to agree on a process.

“It may very well be challenging, but what’s been happening so far does not serve anybody very well. It’s time now to do it properly instead of what appears to be now a haphazard manner,” said Bodnar.

CFRS chair Bill Chu said his organization has been concerned with the secondary school reconstruction for three years.

“I don’t have any relatives buried there, but anyone who is trying to dig up anybody’s burial site it should be considered an offence. It should be an offence to you as well. Otherwise it wouldn’t be called a final resting place. It would be disrespectful,” said Chu. “We need to be informed when it happens.”

“There’s no doubt that cemetery was packed with bodies. Bodies don’t walk, so once they’re down there, they’re down there. And then they build this great big school on top … We are repeating the same mistake as in 1948-49. This is a moral question, an ethical question for the community. The site is huge so I don’t know why they don’t find another chunk of land on the site.”

Qayqayt chief Rhonda Larrabee said the New Westminster Indian Band is interested in the site but doesn’t plan to watch the dirt being sifted.

“We have been receiving updates from [Golder]. They do keep us informed as to what’s going on,” said Larrabee, who noted Golder has found remains on other sites in Surrey and recently on former Musqueam land in Vancouver’s Marpole neighbourhood. “I have faith the archeological people they will disclose everything they find and do it respectfully.”

The city hopes to meet with the archeological branch soon to get the go ahead for completion of the project.

Schools project coordinator Jim Alkins said the district has started a process to identify who has an interest in the property.

“As we move forward we will have an opportunity to approach people if we encounter human remains and we haven’t encountered any so far,” said Alkins. “Part of the problem we’re having is we’re early in the process. We’re just getting started. We didn’t even know who to talk to … It’s a long process we’re going into, and it may take several years before we finalize all the requirements going forward.”

He said when the dirt is sifted a way must be found for the workers to do it safely without having people hovering over them.

“They can’t interfere with the work. It has to be a safe environment. We’ll set up a protocol and process so they can view with some comfort depending on the site constraints,” said Alkins.

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