School once slated to be built on cemetery offers hope for reconciliation

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The old school, which has been declared seismically dangerous, sits atop a cemetery used by indigenous, Chinese and Sikh communities

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The relocation of the construction of a high school in New Westminster, which was once to be built on a cemetery that has not been used for a century, is an example of reconciliation in action, according to an advocate.

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New Westminster High School officially opened on Thursday after three years of construction.

The old school, which has been declared seismically dangerous, sits atop a cemetery used by indigenous, Chinese and Sikh communities. Psychiatric asylum patients, the indigent, and executed prisoners were also buried there from the mid-1800s to 1920s.

Bill Chu, CEO of the Canadian for Reconciliation Society, said he hopes the opening of the school and a memorial project for the old site where the cemetery is located will start a conversation about reconciliation. Chu’s group had campaigned against rebuilding the school at its old site and hailed the decision to relocate the school.

“What we have tried to say is that reconciliation is not just an excuse from the government,” he said. “It takes the effort of the whole community to participate in reconciliation, and it shows how committed Canadians are to embracing a new future. “

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Historian Rob McCullough said the discussion and debate surrounding the construction of the school highlights a part of the town’s history that has been overlooked by the wider community.

“There is a piece of our history that is missing, a piece of our city’s narrative that is missing due to the absence of these names and graves in the community,” said McCullough, director of museums and heritage services for the City of New Westminster. “I think it’s a piece of history that reflects the marginalized and diverse voices that we don’t always hear.”

A 2007 report made for the city indicated that there was no indication of graves unearthed after the 1930s. The site, known as the Douglas Road Cemetery, was taken over for the Second effort. World War briefly before the construction of the school.

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“Research undertaken to date has yielded no evidence of major exhumations from the cemetery before or in association with the development of the school grounds, which began in 1948,” the 2007 report states.

McCullough said there was no consensus on when the headstones and other headstones were removed, which he said deserves further consideration.

“It’s a good reason to ask these questions,” he said.

Archie Miller, who served as the city curator for nearly 27 years and wrote a report on the site for the local school district, said he s surprised by the shock expressed at the school being on an old cemetery. Miller, who attended school in the 1950s, said his story was well known at the time.

“It was no secret. Some people said people didn’t know it and it was kept silent, but no, it was there and people knew it was a cemetery, ”he said.

Miller and Chu say they think a monument would be a good way to commemorate those buried on the property.

Karim Hahlaf, the school district superintendent, said in a statement that the school will develop and build educational elements throughout the site to educate students and residents about its cultural and historical significance.

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