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GPR to address cemetery concerns

A grave marker at the Stork Cemetery, located off of Ridgemont Drive.  - N. Obre
A grave marker at the Stork Cemetery, located off of Ridgemont Drive.
— image credit: N. Obre

The city of Fernie is moving forward with ground penetrating radar (GPR) to assess the site known as the Stork Cemetery, located in a ravine behind several houses off of Ridgemont Drive. The work would help to determine the location and amount of human remains believed to be buried throughout the area.

“We have made arrangements for a ground penetrating radar assessment of the Stork Cemetery to delineate the boundary,” explained Jim Hendricks, city of Fernie Chief Administrative Officer. “That will be done in conjunction with an archaeologist who will be on site while the assessment's going on and will use the information from the assessment to do some mapping of the site.”

The Stork cemetery is one of four areas outside of St. Margaret's Cemetery suspected to be burial grounds. These areas of concern were originally brought forward to Fernie council by John Gawryluk and Corlyn Haarstad in January 2013. They believe inaccurate record keeping and the improper designation of cemetery boundaries has led to the misplacement or removal of 402 people that died and were buried in Fernie.

In June 2013, council decided to form the Fernie Cemetery Committee, which met for the first time in January 2014. According to the committee's mandate, they are tasked with finding a location to place a monument honouring those who have been laid to rest in unmarked graves.

A monument is just one of the many original requests Gawryluk and Haarstad made to council in early 2013. They 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, and designating the cemeteries located outside of St. Margaret's as true Heritage/Pioneer Burial Sites.

With the city now committed to funding the GPR assessment of the Stork Cemetery, it is another step towards addressing Fernie's cemetery issues.

“Staff's done a good job of making sure we're getting the right people in here and we're going to come to an answer and get to a goal line here of getting the area recognized and demarked so we can know with certainty what we're dealing with,” commented Councillor Phil Iddon. “For too long we've been going back and forth about a grey area on a map. Now we're getting to a point where we've committed the funds and staff has managed to move forward.”

Fernie Mayor Mary Giuliano echoed Iddon's sentiments.

“I'm really happy because this is such a long time coming. It will just be nice to have something finally happen that will give us some information,” she said. “We're doing our best to try and make things move along and it would be fabulous if we could get something done in the next few months.”

While Gawryluk and Haarstad are happy to see things moving forward, they are still hoping to see more action in regards to their other requests.

“For me, it's been over two years dealing with the city, over 18 years for the two of us doing our work, and I'm glad we're finally moving forward,” remarked Gawryluk. “I'm proud that they're doing [the GPR], but they need to go quicker and further with what they're doing.”

Also working with Gawryluk and Haarstad is Dan Ste. Marie, who presented some of their further concerns to council on Monday, May 26. He reminded council that the Stork Cemetery was deemed a Historic Site by the Heritage Conservation Branch in 1979, protecting it under the Heritage Act. Under the Act, any person who damages, digs, alters, or removes an object from the area is subject to a fine and/or jail time. This could include residents who knowingly or unknowingly dug fence post holes, planted flowers, or buried pets within the site.

“I think it might be prudent of the city to notify the other residents of Ridgemont Place not to go and do anything in that area as they may commit a criminal offence,” said Ste. Marie. “A $50,000 fine, or two years in jail, or both, is significant.”

He also asked the city to consider ordering that all fences encroaching into the Stork Cemetery be removed and restored to the property line.

Ste. Marie went on to discuss the Monroe Cemetery - the chain link fenced in cemetery at the Silver Ridge Estates. In 2008, the remains of four individuals were found in lots adjacent to the cemetery, and in 2012, archaeologists located additional remains in the area.

“Munroe Cemetery is also designated a Heritage Site, and because of the number of human remains that have been found just outside the Munroe Cemetery, I was wondering if council would approach the ministry to have them extend that designation to incorporate those three lots that are there,” asked Ste. Marie. “If the province did say yes... then the province would be responsible for paying some kind of compensation to the owners of those lots.”

Ste. Marie added, “From the discussion we've had with the archaeologist and the people that did the GPR, the likelihood of finding more remains on those three lots is fairly high. We would like to see that area protected.”

Another option would be for the city to go through the process of declaring it a heritage site on their own, or come to an agreement with the owners not to develop the land.

Hendricks felt approaching the province was worth considering.

“The process involves adoption of a bylaw, a public hearing, public consultation, and discussion with the developer,” he said. “What it would mean is an expansion to the area that is designated [a Heritage Site] right now so that no development could occur on that property. That would of course have an effect on the market value of those lots. It's a very involved process, but it's certainly something we can look into.”

The GPR assessment of the Stork Cemetery is tentatively planned for the first week of June. The city will discuss what further action should be taken once the work has been completed and they have received the results.

 

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