New Westminster's Chinese community wants to stop history from repeating itself by preventing a school constructed on top of a Chinese burial ground from being rebuilt on the same spot.
New Westminster Secondary School sits on hundreds of graves of the town's European and Chinese pioneers dating back to the 1860s.
A hint of the site's history surfaced when the school was built in 1949 and a bulldozer operator uncovered a coffin in the section that included the Chinese burial ground, but the discovery was ignored.
"They built an entire school on top of a cemetery and nobody said a word," New Westminster city councillor Bill Harper said. "Today, that is just unconscionable."
Now, 60 years later, the school needs to be replaced, but when it is torn down, only part of the former burial grounds will be protected from future development.
That section does not include the burial grounds used by Chinese pioneers and other marginalized groups of the day, including Aboriginal people, the mentally handicapped and criminals, said Bill Chu, chairman of Canadians for Reconciliation.
The school district is contemplating rebuilding the school on the same property. Its plan is to avoid the official cemetery, but that does not include the Chinese burial ground.
Mr. Chu is calling for stronger protections such as a restrictive covenant before the plan is finalized.
"Protection should not be racially based. Either you do it or you don't," Mr. Chu said. "It is part of our common history. It is on Canadian land, so it's in no way an ethnic issue."
Under the current proposal, the only legal protection for the part of the site that includes the Chinese burial ground is under the Heritage Conservation Act, which does not preclude future development.
"We are afraid that today you might see a football field, but tomorrow you might see a high-rise," Mr. Chu said. "People from one generation to another don't usually carry forth memories of what happened during the past."
The Chinese burial ground has no protection in the school district's plan because the existence of any human remains there is hotly contested.
The cemetery was established in the 1860s. A site study commissioned by the school district states that the Chinese burial ground operated adjacent to the official cemetery until 1908.
A news report from 1884 quotes the mayor saying, "Chinamen, criminals and Indians and the unfortunate who had no friends were buried there."
The entire site was largely abandoned as a cemetery after 1914.
Chinese custom had been to exhume the bones of the dead after seven years and return them to China, but other marginalized people were also buried on the site and there is no evidence that all bodies were exhumed, Mr. Chu said.
Project director Jim Alkins said that areas where medical records, radar testing and property records provide evidence of burials have been protected.
There is no such evidence for the other section of the school property, he said.
"There is no evidence to show what extent of burials occurred in that area. It's very poorly defined as to whether or not is was ever used as a cemetery," Mr. Alkins said.
The fact that one body was discovered when the school was constructed should be evidence enough, Mr. Chu said.
Mr. Alkins said that any future development would include consultation with the Chinese community, including contingency plans in case "a random bone" is found.
The debate ignited a broader review of historical racism by the city of New Westminster. The review showed the Chinese residents were not able to vote in municipal elections, were barred from employment and were called a "menace" in newspapers.
It was a time when racism was "just outrageous," Mr. Harper said.
Protecting the Chinese cemetery is another way to move beyond the past, he said.
"The whole thing needs to be dealt with in an open and honourable way," he said. "I hope we learn something, rather than hide something as a civilization."Report Typo/Error
Follow us on Twitter: