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Cemetery committee turmoil leaves unmarked burial grounds in limbo

The first meeting of the Cemetery Committee was intended to work towards a solution and monument for the 385 people misplaced and resting in unmarked graves in Fernie, but ended in turmoil and confusion.  - Free Press file photo
The first meeting of the Cemetery Committee was intended to work towards a solution and monument for the 385 people misplaced and resting in unmarked graves in Fernie, but ended in turmoil and confusion.
— image credit: Free Press file photo

A full year after two community members brought forward their concerns about additional burial grounds outside of St. Margaret's Cemetery, the first meeting of the Fernie Cemetery Committee was held on Tuesday, January 21. What was intended to bring those concerned together with the City to work towards a solution and monument, ended in turmoil and confusion.

John Gawryluk and Corlyn Haarstad have spent almost 15 years gathering data and records from the Fernie and District Historical Society, the City of Fernie, B.C. archives, newspaper articles, and obituary notices. They believe that inaccurate record keeping and the improper designation of cemetery boundaries has led to the misplacement and/or removal of 385 people that died and were buried in Fernie. The pair have also confirmed the existence of what they believe to be four additional burial areas outside of St. Margaret’s Cemetery and within City boundaries. This includes a small chain link fenced cemetery at the Silver Ridge Estates.

They brought their findings to the City of Fernie in January 2013 to ask for help in working towards a solution. After months of waiting for a response, Fernie council decided in June 2013 to form a committee to deal with the issues.

The City began advertising for interested volunteers to sit on the Cemetery Committee, whose mandate was originally stated as being a group that would “assist in identifying a suitable location for the placement of a monument to honour those individuals who have been laid to rest in unmarked graves and address the issues surrounding the potential burial grounds outside of St. Margaret's Cemetery.”

Appointed to sit on the committee last August was Mayor Mary Giuliano and Councillor Joni Krats, two representatives from the Fernie Heritage Cemetery Restoration Society, a representative from the Fernie & District Historical Society, and three representatives from the community, Gawryluk and Haarstad, as well as Dan Ste. Marie.

However when the group finally met for their first meeting on Tuesday (January 21), the mandate read out to the committee members was that the committee would “advise council on a suitable location for the placement of a monument to honour those individuals who have been laid to rest in unmarked graves.”

The other issues originally brought forward by Gawryluk and Haarstad were left out, and Gawryluk made his frustrations very clear. Just a few minutes into the meeting, he walked out.

“As soon as we began the meeting and went over the mandate, Mr. Gawryluck decided that the mandate isn't something he wanted, and isn't what he expected from the committee,” explained Mayor Mary Giuliano.

When asked about the mandate, the discrepancy was apparent in Giuliano’s response, “It has not changed. When it was discussed at council, council determined that this was going to be the mandate. So when that [original] ad was run, council had not actually determined the mandate.”

She added, “This mandate that council placed was what [Gawryluk and Haarstad] required of us, and although they asked for other things, this is what council has decided we're going to focus on at this time.”

Although a monument was part of what Gawryluk and Haarstad were asking for, it was just one item from a long list of recommendations. Their requests included: acquiring proper records and database of all internees, identifying the missing people that could be located in any of the five cemeteries within Fernie, identifying unmarked graves, developing a memorial park at Silver Ridge Estates to honour and respect people buried or removed from the location, and to designate the cemeteries located outside of St. Margaret’s as true Heritage/Pioneer Burial Sites.

While Gawryluk and Haarstad never expected everything they had asked for to come to fruition, they are disheartened the City isn't willing to work with them in the capacity they had hoped.

“Right now I'm very, very disappointed with the outcome of that first meeting. We thought that this might actually start to work, that we could cooperate with the City to start making this move forward,” commented Haarstad. “The City is trying to put a band aid over an open wound, we're trying to close it. We're never going to accomplish everything, we completely understand that, but the inclination we have is far more complete that anything they have.

She went on to say, “I truly don't believe that we are ever going to find out each personal grave of each person, but we could find out a location at the very least. I have not worked for 15 years to have this thrown in the garbage, to have it shelved to collect dust for another hundred years.”

Gawryluk echoed Haarstad's feelings. “From the very beginning we were anticipating working with the City, but since we started it's always been delays and roadblocks,” he remarked. “I don't know where else to go from here. I'm lost and I'm very angry because we've had no cooperation from council as far as I'm concerned.”

Gawryluk also stated that he and Harstaad were never looking for financial assistance from the City, only guidance and support.

“We have spent almost 15 years of research at our cost. We're not looking to regain any of that, or planning on doing cemetery tours for profit, we're not interested in that. Preservation is all we want,” said Gawryluck. “There is no money being made here, we're doing it from the heart. We are passionate about this project and we're trying to make right the wrongs that were done.

“Bottom line, the goal is to identify the spots, GPR (ground penetrating radar), register the land, and the monument would be the icing on the cake. That's always been our goal.”

Although Giuliano regrets that Gawryluck felt he had to leave the meeting, the City is prepared to move forward with the committee without him.

“The City will be advertising for another committee member so that we will have a full group of people again and we are going to work towards the mandate. We are hoping that Mr. Gawryluck will still want to have input, and if he does we will welcome his input,” said Giuliano. “This is something that we want to make happen. I want to emphasize that this was Mr. Gawryluk's idea and the City is not trying to do something that was his idea outside of him. We are doing it because he brought it forward and it is a really good idea to honour and respect those people.”

Giuliano also reinforced that the committee would be working towards the monument only, and that the other original concerns would not be addressed by the City at this time. Once the City has filled the open position on the Cemetery Committee they will be scheduling a second meeting.

 

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