It’s a big deal when a municipality such as ours takes over the responsibility for something as sacred as one of our oldest cemeteries. It’s a bigger deal when that steward destroys half of the grave markers (the wooden ones) in the belief that it is tidying up. For many of us with unidentified relatives in that cemetery, however, the pinnacle of atrocity would be the desecration of those lost, final, resting places.
Last week the groundworks were being laid for just such an atrocity, when the City of Whitehorse moved to transfer a portion of the Pioneer Cemetery to the Yukon government.
Few historical records remain about any of the burials in the Pioneer Cemetery, but we know for a fact that Martha Louise Black died on Oct. 31, 1957 and was interned with a full state funeral on Nov. 1. The same dates stand for Jeffery Kenneth Howell. It was 6 C that day, making the cemetery difficult to access, so Mrs. Black was buried very close to the road. The same consideration would have been given to Jeff.
Looking down the Steele St. extension, dividing the cemetery from the transferring lots, it is clear where the Steele Street line cuts through the turnaround at the southwest end of the cemetery. That turnaround is filled with gravesites, both marked and unmarked. This would have been the most easily accessed part of the cemetery away from Mrs Blacks’ state funeral that day.
Ground-penetrating radar and an excavation crew are not necessary when it comes to discovering the burial sites. One needs only open your eyes to see four smaller, grave-shaped, depressions beside and (almost) right on the road. As a casual search continues, several more can be seen nearby. The same is true for the remainder of the Pioneer Cemetery.
Further, because the Pioneer Cemetery was the only active cemetery at the height of the residential schools tragedy, First Nations have also found themselves deeply concerned. Nobody knows where half of the people buried here are, so many Yukoners, whose predecessors may not have had the money for a stone headpiece, probably have a dead relative in an unmarked grave here.
I suspect that the message resonated politically as well. Mayor Dan Curtis seemed much more contrite than the mayor who was driven to make things happen last week, and the minister responsible for social services, Doug Graham, even showed up prior to the final vote, formally reassuring all that no desecrations would happen. In fact, in conversation later, Minister Graham and I spoke about the possible redrawing of the property line so that it simply does not tear through the area of interest.
So I suppose this is a letter of thanks to those who have accepted this moment in time as a reminder of the duty of care that we all have in the preservation of our history and our unique Yukon-style ethics of respect, duty and honour.
Looking forward to watching how this all plays out.