Don’t build New Westminster Secondary School over Chinese cemetery, again

Bill Chu, monitoring the sieving of materials from a minor excavation at the New Westminster Secondary School site in December 2012.

Bill Chu, monitoring the sieving of materials from a minor excavation at the New Westminster Secondary School site in December 2012.

Everyone agrees that New Westminster Secondary School is well past its prime. The New Westminster school district is committed to replacing it and BC’s Education Minister Mike Bernier recently described the project as his ministry’s number one priority.

But he wouldn’t commit to a specific timeline, saying in the New Westminster Record April 6: “I think what a lot of people hopefully will realize is that this is going to be basically the largest school in the province. It’s also the largest investment the government has ever made in education for a single project.”

Though Bernier referred to the “complex nature of the problem, he made no mention of one serious issue. The problem is that the school (located along 8th Street between 8th and 10th Avenue) was built over a cemetery used by the local Chinese community, as well as by other ethnic minorities, Indigenous people and marginalized groups.

Earlier this year, the provincial government accorded some recognition to the cemetery, when it was included as one of 21 Chinese historical sites around the province to be added to the BC Register of Historic Places under the Heritage Conservation Act.

The Chinese Canadian Historic Places report says, in part:

The site is symbolic of the erasure of the Chinese-Canadian presence in New Westminster and across the province. . . . The Chinese Cemetery is a reminder of the significant and vital Chinatown that once existed in New Westminster and has similarly disappeared, and provides an accessible site for the commemoration of a painful history which should not be forgotten.

Bill Chu and the Canadians For Reconciliation Society (CFRS) are opposing plans to rebuild the school on the current site. Here he lays out some of his reasons for that opposition and explains why Christians should care about it.

The history

The site began as a cemetery sectioned out for various denominations and organizations. Then, as it was swampy, the white population began having burials over at the newer Fraser Cemetery.

By 1890, the cemetery was devoted exclusively to Chinese and other ethnic groups. Thus “Chinese cemetery” is really a misnomer, because in it were buried all people of colour and the marginalized: Chinese, Japanese, Indo-Canadians, Indigenous people, prisoners, asylum residents and the destitute.

By 1907, the cemetery was inspected and was found to be full, so much so that in 1909 the Chinese community leased two acres along Tenth Avenue for burials. As the city grew, the semi-abandoned cemetery became incompatible with the new houses around it.

In 1914 the city closed down the cemetery, without spending the money to decommission it. Consequently, all human remains stayed in the ground while the land became overgrown. All gravestones were removed except for those of the early white pioneers.

Under a land exchange agreement with the school district, the city allowed the construction of a secondary school over the cemetery in 1948. Reportedly, truck loads of bones were removed in the darker hours.

Current situation

While it is good that the government has included the cemetery on the heritage list, it is now clear that the designation does not confer any form of legal protection. In other words, the site is no better protected or honoured today than it has been for the past century.

Following is a portion of a letter CFRS sent to Premier Christy Clark April 29:

We are one of the 33 stakeholders groups on the controversial  school re-construction proposed over a former cemetery in New Westminster. The existing school was built on top of two cemeteries in 1949.

On April 27 we received a first ever call from the Ministry of Education. The civil servant, who specializes not in history but in project management, informed us that the Ministry is about to grant capital project funding for that reconstruction.

We are surprised that the Ministry in charge of our children’s education would approve the questionable reconstruction project over a former Chinese Cemetery (actually buried in it are the marginalized and those of colour: Chinese, Japanese, Indo-Canadians, Indigenous people, etc.).

The said cemetery has not been decommissioned through proper process of informing the descendants or stakeholders. So the question is: Is the dignity of one’s remains and one’s right to stay at one’s burial site worth public respect anymore?

What’s also surprising is that she indicated that School District 40 (the owner of the site) will conduct consultation with stakeholder groups after the District received the construction funding!

As the controversy of human remains below the site has clearly been the issue, why would the Ministry not demand the School District find an alternate site instead of granting them the money?

Why would the District be allowed to work secretly with the Ministry of Consumer and Corporate Affairs to downgrade the former Chinese Cemetery to a “Heritage Conservation area,” while allowing the adjacent former Caucasian cemetery to keep its designation as “Cemetery” in an effort to protect the latter from construction? Is that not discriminatory practice by BC government in 2016?

Has the Ministry forgotten your words in your 2014 apology to the Chinese community: “British Columbians today consider this racist discrimination unacceptable and view it with extreme indignation.” Furthermore they forgot just a bare three months ago, your government designated the above former Chinese Cemetery  as one of the 21 Chinese historic places.

So why are they are planning to grant funding for its total destruction now?

Christian response

For Christians, our consideration is much more than whether the Ministry of Education should grant funding to the School District for school reconstruction. Here are some reasons why this issue should be of particular concern to the Christian community:

1. Among the 33 stakeholder groups in this site are six church groups (including the Anglican Diocese of New Westminster, Holy Trinity Cathedral, First Presbyterian Church and Queens Avenue United Church), some of which took up sections of the cemetery for the use of their members. 

2. We need to remember the essential dignity of all human beings, who are made in God’s image, whether in life or in death.

3. We must defend the right to and sanctity of a burial place, irrespective of one’s race or creed. If a burial site can be bulldozed for development without due process or informed consent, descendants will have no certainty in finding their parents’ graves after a few years.

4. There is still a need for reconciliation, as the underlying issue behind the old school being built – and the new one being proposed – over a Chinese cemetery is the largely unreconciled relationship between mainstream whites and minorities.

Bill Chu is a retired engineer who has been very active on issues related to Indigenous people and the Chinese community. He founded Canadians For Reconciliation Society.

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