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Advocate looks out for the forgotten

Faith Bodnar pleased that cemetery site on school grounds will be dealt with by archeologists

The executive director of the B.C. Association for Community Living doesn't want a "repeat" of what happened on the former Woodlands burial site to happen at the old cemetery at New Westminster Secondary School.

Faith Bodnar's organization, which advocates for developmental disabilities, including former Woodlands residents, was contacted in July by the New Westminster School District about its plans to dig on the high school grounds.

"The community of people with development disabilities have not yet received an apology for what happened on the cemetery (at Woodlands)," Bodnar said. "That gravesite was actually desecrated; the cemetery and the headstones ended up all over the place - in people's barbecue pits - and dumped in ravines. That led to the development of the memorial gardens."

The Woodlands Memorial Garden is located on the former Woodlands site in Victoria Hill.

Woodlands opened in New Westminster in 1878 as the Provincial Asylum for the Insane. It was renamed Woodlands School in 1950 and operated until 1996.

Residents included people diagnosed with physical and developmental disabilities, those with behavioural challenges and wards of the province.

The recovered concrete slab gravemarkers are rough, often with just the person's death date and no birthday, Bodnar said.

"If you go over to the garden sometimes, and you'll see the memorial - it's shocking to see the history of the deaths in there, and people dying in great numbers, one day after the other. It's really quite sobering to see it," she said.

The district wants to install a plumbing system in portables on the high school site and had to inform groups whose former members may have been buried in the old cemetery, where many marginalized people were buried from the 1860s to the 1920s.

Bodnar said the letter was the first admission she's had that indicates people from Woodlands were buried on the high school site.

"Before that, we were not able to get that information, so this is the first real admission," she said. "We had a really good idea, but we couldn't confirm it until about a month and a half ago. Those with developmental disabilities were among the most outcasted (in society)."

Bodnar said she was assured that an archeologist would be present at the high school if any digging occurs.

"From what they know, on the site where they are going to be digging is not going very deep right now," she said.

The archeology branch of the provincial Ministry of Forest, Land and Natural Resources told Bodnar that protocols are in place if remains are found, she said.

"We'd want to make sure people are, of course, people's remains are respectfully reinterred," Bodnar said. "We will be watching, of course, to ensure that things are done appropriately, properly and respectfully."

The area the district wants to dig is located behind the school library, which is not part of the designated cemetery site at the high school. Still, the entire site is protected under a heritage conservation agreement.

The district applied for a site alteration permit pursuant to section 12 of the Heritage Conservation Act. The application was sent to more than 30 groups that may have had members buried on the site.

The purpose was to "inform" the groups, board of education chair James Janzen told The Record recently.

He said patients from Woodlands and Essondale - which later became Riverview - were buried at the high school cemetery.

It was in 2008 that the full extent of the cemetery came to light, when the district hired a consulting firm to investigate. The cemetery lines were drawn based on research.

The Business Practices and Consumer Protection Authority - the government body that oversees cemeteries - designated a portion of the site a cemetery, and the rest fell under the Heritage Conservation Act, which will allow the district to proceed with construction projects - like implementing plumbing - under certain conditions.

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