Two community members believe that inaccurate record keeping and the improper designation of cemetery boundaries has led to the misplacement and/or removal of hundreds of people that died and were buried in Fernie.
After receiving calls from family members searching for burial sites of their ancestors, John Gawryluk and Corlyn Haarstad of Cherished Memories Funeral Services started researching internments in St. Margaret’s Cemetery in 2000. They began gathering data from the Fernie and District Historical Society and the City of Fernie. After comparing the two sources, they discovered there were names missing from the records of St. Margaret’s Cemetery, as well as discrepancies with the B.C. Archives online databases.
Gawryluk and Haarstad went on to acquire records through the B.C. Archives of the 935 deaths in Fernie and the surrounding area between 1889 and 1911. They began the process of cross-referencing them with records from Holy Family Catholic Church, Anglican Church Archives, Knox United Church, newspaper articles and obituary notices, and the Fernie Heritage Cemetery Restoration Society. They also conducted walks through St. Margaret’s to authenticate the actual gravesites with records.
Concerned residents packed the Aquatic Centre for a Committee of the Whole meeting on Monday to see Gawryluk and Haarstad present their findings to council following 12 years of research.
“The records show that 542 people are buried at St. Margaret’s Cemetery,” explained Haarstad. “393 people of the 935 [who died from 1889 to 1911] have records showing their cause and place of death in Fernie, however the location of these people is not recorded.”
Haarstad listed several problems she and Gawryluk came across through their work, including inaccurate record keeping, possible removal of bodies without proper authority, unmarked graves, and a lack of care and maintenance to the cemetery grounds.
The pair also takes issue with the development of the Silver Ridge Estates in Fernie’s Ridgemont area.
“In 2008, workers on the construction site of Silver Ridge found four complete skeletons,” explained Haarstad. “To my understanding, the following process took place.
“The developer stopped the construction and notified the RCMP. Afterwards, the coroner, the City of Fernie, the British Columbia Consumer Protection Agency, which governs all cemeteries in the province of B.C., and the Archeological Branch, which now oversees all involvement on the lots of Silver Ridge Estates surrounding the existing cemetery, became involved.”
The four bodies that were found were turned over to Cherished Memories, who held a graveside service and ensured they received a proper burial.
“With the findings of the skeletons, numerous people came to Cherished Memories to tell about their recollections of the old cemetery which included unplanned exhumations during the construction of the C.L. Salvador, or Ridgemont Elementary School,” Haarstad said. “More recently, citizens began to express concerns with the development at Silver Ridge Estates.”
She went on to say, “Once again, the remains of those buried there decades earlier would be disturbed. This possibility invoked citizens to voice outrage concerning the disrespect and disregard that officials and previous developers had concerning the remains. The escalation of the situation prompted Cherished Memories to pursue more intense research of the area.”
Through the use of maps from the City of Fernie, an AutoCAD mapping program, and an aerial photograph, Haarstad and Gawryluk have 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.
Haarstad assured council they were not appearing before them to place blame, but to ask for their help.
She outlined several recommendations to the City on behalf of Cherished Memories: to acquire proper records and database of all internees, identify the missing people that could be located in any of the five cemeteries within Fernie, identify unmarked graves, develop 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.
They are also asking that a committee be formed to begin addressing their concerns.
Following the presentation, Mayor Mary Giuliano thanked Haarstad and Gawryluk for their time and research.
“I do want people to understand that we are taking this very seriously and we definitely appreciate the presence of the people here,” she remarked.
Given the amount of information presented, mayor and council will take the matter under consideration. The topic may be brought forward at a future council meeting for further discussion.