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Dignitaries, students and guest attend the ribbon cutting ceremony during the official opening of New Westminster Secondary School in New Westminster, British Columbia, Thursday, October 14, 2021.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

In 1948, a piece of land along the western boundary of New Westminster, B.C., was eradicated by bulldozers. The site, which a century prior had been a final resting place for Chinese pioneers, Sikhs, and members of First Nations, soon disappeared when a high school was built on top of it.

After more than a decade of planning and debate, that high school, New Westminster Secondary School, moved into a new building on an adjacent site in January. The new school held its official opening ceremony on Thursday.

Next year, the old building is expected to be demolished, revealing the historic burial ground for the first time in decades. The local school board has promised that the site will be commemorated with a park and memorial area.

Although members of local Chinese Canadian and Indigenous communities call the relocation of the school a good start for reconciliation, one B.C. First Nation says more must be done.

For years, the Tsilhqot’in Nation has called for the school to be renamed after Chief Ahan, a Tsilhqot’in leader who was hanged in downtown New Westminster in 1865.

“I think it would be appropriate and a gesture of reconciliation. New Westminster wants to change its history and start doing things in the right way. They can start by renaming that high school after Chief Ahan,” said Tsilhqot’in National Government chair Chief Joe Alphonse.

“I think there were a lot of wrongs done to us,” Mr. Alphonse added. “To start naming schools after some of our fallen warriors, then their life and their efforts weren’t unnoticed and it’s a good opportunity to allow and promote education on Indigenous issues.”

The Tsilhqot’in, a central-interior B.C. nation also known as the Chilcotin, believe that after Chief Ahan was executed for his part in the Chilcotin War of 1864, his body was taken by horse and wagon to the New Westminster Chinese Cemetery (also known as the Douglas Road Cemetery) that now lies beneath the former New Westminster Secondary School building.

There is some dispute over the exact location of Chief Ahan’s remains. Local historian Archie Miller has said the chief’s bones likely are not buried in the schoolyard.

What is no longer in dispute is Chief Ahan’s innocence of the crimes for which he was executed. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau officially exonerated six Tsilhqot’in warriors, including Chief Ahan, in 2018. In 2014, Christy Clark, who at the time was premier of B.C., offered an official apology for the wrongful hangings.

Maya Russell, a school board trustee in New Westminster, said the board has guidelines for renaming buildings in cases where existing names no longer serve the needs of the community.

She said the request to rename New Westminster Secondary School doesn’t qualify under those guidelines, but the school board understands that the site is sacred ground that holds tremendous significance for the Tsilhqot’in National Government.

New Westminster’s mayor, Jonathan Coté, called the process of building the new school one of the most challenging high-school redevelopments in the province’s history. The city had originally planned to rebuild the facility on the site of the old school, but abandoned those plans after criticism from groups such as the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs and the Canadians for Reconciliation Society.

Karim Hachlaf, the school district’s superintendent, said the school will integrate educational components into the landscape that replaces the decommissioned building, so that students can understand the cultural significance of the site.

The New Westminster Chinese Cemetery, established in the 1860s, illustrates B.C.’s troubled history with its Asian, Indigenous and South Asian communities. According to Heritage BC, a not-for-profit organization, when the site became overcrowded after years of use by New Westminster residents, the town began performing burials in a new cemetery in Sapperton, leaving the Douglas Road location to be used by people of colour, the poor, prisoners and the mentally ill.

A site study commissioned by the school district notes that in 1884, New Westminster’s mayor was quoted in a news report as saying, “Chinamen, criminals and Indians and the unfortunate who had no friends were buried there.”

In 1949, according to the study, a bulldozer operator uncovered a coffin while levelling the land that includes the cemetery. The discovery was ignored.

University of British Columbia history professor Henry Yu said B.C. was historically built upon white supremacy, which extended to the province’s gravesites.

“It’s not an accident. It’s not an oversight,” he said.

“White supremacy extends into death. It means that we won’t even respect your graves. We can build a school, we can build a new road, we can build a bridge, we can build anything,” he said.

Bill Chu, chief executive officer of the Canadians for Reconciliation Society, said he hopes that the opening of the new school will be a message to the rest of the country.

“So often, we think that there’s only one way of treating history. But there’s another way, which is to try to reconcile with it, rather than try to hide it.”

Prof. Yu said reconciliation is a process that starts with the reorganization of truth.

“If you acknowledge the reality of that history, then you can move forward.”

With a report from The Canadian Press

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