Representatives of groups whose members were buried in the old cemetery on the grounds of New Westminster Secondary School were present when the city started digging on the site on a water main installation project last weekend.
Faith Bodnar with the B.C. Association of Community Living, which advocates for people with developmental disabilities, was among the pair who watched workers dig through the soil.
"I felt it was important to witness the process on behalf of the people that were buried there," Bodnar said. "It was an emotional experience to know they were digging where people were laid to rest."
But Jim Alkins, project manager of capital projects for the New Westminster school district, said the area where the city was installing a new water main and fire hydrants was not the cemetery site.
"I think there's some confusion where the cemetery is," Alkins said. "The work being done is not in the cemetery."
The city was working in an area on the site that is protected under the Heritage Conservation Act, which requires that certain steps be followed during construction.
The area that is designated a cemetery is near the corner of Eighth Street and 10th Avenue, and no construction will occur there, Alkins said.
"We don't want to do any work where there might be human remains," he said.
Bill Chu, chair of Canadians for Reconciliation Society, was also present for Saturday's dig.
There were about five or six representatives from the consulting firm Golder Associates and someone from an engineering firm on site during the dig on Saturday, Bodnar said, adding that she didn't feel welcome by the workers.
Nonetheless, she stayed and watched as they sifted through the soil. About two backpacks worth of items were taken from the digs that day, she said.
"There were a number of things taken out ... some were debris, pennies and such," Bodnar said, but added, "no one would confirm what they were."
In the summer, Bodnar learned residents from Woodlands and Essondale - which later became Riverview - were buried at the cemetery. She said she hoped the high school cemetery didn't turn into a "repeat" of what happened on the former Woodlands burial site.
"The community of people with development disabilities have not yet received an apology for what happened on the cemetery (at Woodlands)," she said at the time.
Moving forward, the Association of Community Living is working on bringing together all of the groups with connections to burials on the site.
She said they plan to arrange to meet in mid-to late January.
"We need to take ownership over this and drive it," Bodnar said, noting many of the groups buried on the site - those with mental and physical disabilities, nonwhites and the poor - were "marginalized" people.
Reconciliation is the goal, she said. "But until we have everything up front and on the table, you can't do that," Bodnar said. "You can't have reconciliation . without the truth being put out in the open."
Alkins applauds the plan to get the interested parties to meet.
"We want to come to a solution that's beneficial to everybody," Alkins said.
Bodnar and Chu aren't the only ones concerned about the old cemetery.
Chief Joe Alphonse with Tsilhqot'in Nation said his group is prepared to take legal action if its demands for DNA sampling on any found remains aren't met.
The group believes there is a small chance its ancestor, Chief Ahan, could be buried there.
Jim Lowrie, the city's director of engineering, said an archeologist was onsite during the job.
"No items of historical significance were found during the water main installation," he said.