A First Nations chief is angry the City of New Westminster didn't inform him it was digging on the New Westminster Secondary School site - an area protected by the Heritage Conservation Act because it housed a cemetery - and says they are prepared to take legal action if their demands for DNA sampling on any found remains aren't met.
Chief Joe Alphonse with Tsilhqot'in Nation traveled from Williams Lake to the Lower Mainland Monday to meet with Jim Alkins, project manager for the new schools, and city staff to talk about why his group wasn't informed about a city project to install fire hydrants, which disturbed the ground on the high school. The group believes there is a small chance one of their ancestors - Chief Ahan - could be buried there.
"They were hoping they were going to get permission from us to allow the archeologist to sift through all of that soil and move on with their agenda," Alphonse said. "But as far as we're concerned, we weren't consulted properly or adequately, and we weren't aware they were going to be doing this, and now that they've done this, we will not allow them to touch that soil until they agree to do DNA sampling if they find any remains."
The officials told them they don't want to provide DNA sampling if they find any remains, Alphonse said.
"We are prepared to take legal action if they don't adhere to our demands," he said. "We have to protect our interest, and our interest is that there might be a small possibility that Ahan might be buried there."
Chief Ahan was one of six chiefs sentenced to death during the Chilcotin War, a confrontation in 1864 between members of the Tsilhqot'in people in B.C. and European settlers. He was executed in July 1865.
The exact location of Ahan's burial spot remains a mystery.
The possibility that Ahan might be buried at the high school surfaced in 2008 and drew attention to the old cemetery under New Westminster Secondary School.
A research report determined Ahan likely was buried by the old courthouse downtown, but the chance that he could be on the high school site is enough for Alphonse and his group to demand DNA testing.
They want to bring Ahan's remains back to the Cariboo-Chilcotin region of British Columbia.
Meanwhile, Alkins said the reliability and logistics of trying to achieve DNA testing is a concern.
"There's a whole series of processes that you go through, and the results may not actually provide information that is meaningful," he said. "Not all of the parties . support DNA testing."
Any remains that are found will be put in a safe depository, he said.
"Then testing could be done at some point in the future, if required," Alkins said.
Faith Bodnar with the B.C. Association of Community Living, a group that advocates for people with developmental disabilities, was also upset the city started digging without proper permits, which would have required the city to inform the various stakeholder groups whose members may have been buried on the site. Patients from Woodlands and Essondale - which later became Riverview - were buried at the high school cemetery.
"There's been a cemetery there for more than 150 years," Bodnar said. "They know where the lines of the cemetery are, they know where they are not. I'm just surprised they proceeded without having proper information and things in place. I think it's disrespectful to the fact that that is a cemetery, and they've had 150 years to figure out how to excavate there properly."
The interested parties need to meet and discuss the situation, Bodnar said.
"So that everybody has the same information what the future plans are, so that we can all be part of ensuring that the respect that is due to people buried there is at the heart of everything that's done, and that they don't cause additional hurt and pain with the things they are doing," she said. "I think they have a legal and a moral responsibility to deal with that site extremely sensitively and carefully."
Jim Lowrie, the city's director of engineering, said the city has temporarily halted work on the project - which included a water main installation on the west side of Eighth Street, and has applied for a heritage alteration permit.
"Out of an abundance of caution, I might add, because we are so close to the former cemetery site," Lowrie said.
The city didn't anticipate encroaching on the school property line, but applied for the permit when it did, Lowrie said.
The city is working with Golder Associates, the same group helping to guide the school district through the complicated process of managing the site.
"At this point, we haven't found any humans remains," Lowrie said.
Almost a dump truck-sized pile of dirt was removed from the site during the construction period, but it has not yet been sifted through, Lowrie said.
The city is waiting on approval from the province to continue with the work.