Carmacks church conflict escalates

A proposed church in Carmacks is already being haunted by spirits of the dead. Plans to erect the house of worship atop land many First Nations…

A proposed church in Carmacks is already being haunted by spirits of the dead.

Plans to erect the house of worship atop land many First Nations elders claim is a traditional burial site has sparked a controversy in the community.

“I don’t want to make it a big issue, but it’s starting to come to that,” said Little Salmon/Carmacks chief Eddie Skookum on Friday.

The Carmacks Christian fellowship group, a cross-cultural organization that’s not affiliated with any mother churches, has been planning to build a home in the community for years.

“We got the permits for everything,” said group member Dawn Charlie.

“We’re not a fly-by-night, we’re not a crooked thing.

“I don’t know what the problem is, we’ve been planning it for at least five years — I’m pretty sure our permits say 2001.”

And the First Nation originally backed plans for the new church.

“We did write a support letter,” said Skookum.

“But, at that time, we wanted to know where it was going to be built.

“And they never did show us where the building will be.

“We didn’t know where it was being build until we saw people start cleaning up that area and we thought, ‘What’s going on?’”

The Christian group never identified where they planned to put the church, said Carmacks elder Johnny Sam.

“But when they started digging and bulldozing, we found out where the church is going to be.”

That area is sacred, he said.

“There are elders still living who have seen grave sites there. This is the reason we took action on it.

“We have to respect the ones who have gone already and make sure it’s not disturbed.”

The area was used by Champagne Aishihik and coastal Tlingit peoples for many years, he said.

Prior to contact with Europeans, the ashes of the dead were dispersed there and, post-contact, people were buried on the site.

If this area is sacred, then why was it not identified on the land claim settlements, asked Charlie, who is frustrated with the hullabaloo over municipal land.

“I worked in heritage for 10 years, and it’s a bone of contention with me,” she said.

“Which is why I called in the experts originally, to make sure there was no evidence or possibility it still was a problem.”

Charlie had visiting archeologists examine the area roughly five years ago, she said.

“And they told me everything had already been bulldozed.

“Even the spot I thought might be significant, which was just on the border of where we were going to build, they said the grounds had been disturbed during the highway’s construction.”

The area in question was an old gravel pit, she said.

“And a fire went through in the 1940s and wiped out picket fences and any spirit houses and everything that was on the line.”

It’s not clear how much damage the fire caused, said Sam.

“But if there are ashes there, we should respect them.

“Even the coast people called it a sacred area and hill.”

Although Charlie and the church group were warned by elders that the chosen location was a burial site, they completely diminished its importance at the Lands Application Development Committee meetings, said freelance photographer, writer and consultant Lee Carruthers.

“And lot of people feel there was deception practiced — that (the Christian group) wasn’t honest when they attended these meetings.”

“Maybe they breached some laws, like the consultation stages,” said Skookum.

On August 30th, the First Nation held an all-day meeting and found 100 per cent of the elders were against the proposed location of the church, said Skookum.

And there were about 10 elders there, he said.

It’s not a large group that’s really opposing us,” said Charlie.

“We figure there’s three elders opposing it.

“It just looks like, kind of, an anti-Christian movement,” she said.

“But it’s not a casino, it’s not a bar, it’s not a brothel —we pray for the town, that’s our main purpose.”

Although the fellowship already started clearing land, and had its services there under a tarp all summer, the municipal land is not zoned appropriately.

“We’re in the process of re-zoning,” said Carmacks acting mayor Elaine Wyatt.

“It’s not a village lot,” she said.

“It’s a territorial lot, but it falls under municipal zoning bylaws.”

Right now, the land is zoned parkland. But to accommodate the church, it has to be re-zoned conditional-use parkland.

To change zoning bylaws, the municipal act requires the village hold three public meetings.

“It’s a slow process,” said Wyatt.

“We haven’t even had our first public meeting yet.”

Although no village permits were issued, the Christian fellowship started clearing the land with a Swede saw last fall and began bulldozing the area one-and-a-half months ago.

“They’ve cleaned some of the area away and started grubbing out the place,” said Skookum.

“We’ve already spent thousands out of our own pockets clearing the land,” said Charlie.

“And we have permits for everything.

“We have a plan of action — we’re not the bad guys — we haven’t purposefully done anything.

“We just need to build a church — it doesn’t really matter where.

“And that was an ideal spot; it was a strategic place because we weren’t disturbing anything. And the road approach was approved by highways.

“So it’s not a big deal.”

But even the road to the church is a problem, said Skookum.

The road joins the highway right at the bend before Carmacks, he said.

“So someone comes flying around the bend and this car comes out after the service, and what’s going to happen? And if there’s another vehicle coming the other way, and that car’s half-way in the road ….”

The location of the new church will also interfere with an important snowmobile route used by elders trapping in the area, said Skookum.

“They could have at least let us know where they were going to build it,” he said.

“Then we could have got in on the process and said, ‘Maybe this is a good place,’ you know.”

At the First Nations meeting, none of the elders were against the church, said Sam.

“They were just against where they’re putting it.”

Those opposed have no problem with the church, said Carruthers.

“They just don’t want it there.”

The ongoing conflict reminds Carruthers of his trip to South America.

“In Peru, the Spaniards would purposefully build their churches right on top of the Inca’s sacred sites, to show their superiority,” he said.

“There is a lot of underlying tension between First Nations spirituality and the Christian movement in the community.”

There are actually people being targeted as witches, he said.

And any move toward traditional First Nations ways is seen as a move against the church, he added.

It seems more like a vendetta, said Charlie, who hopes the whole thing will blow over after an upcoming meeting with the chief and council.

“I have a solution,” she said.

Charlie is proposing a memorial stone be put up near the church to remember those buried in the region.

Parts of the burial ground were previously disturbed by highway, housing and school construction during the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s.

At this time, coffins were unearthed and some bodies were moved to new sites, including seven graves that were moved near the school, said Charlie.

 “And you can’t do anything about the babies under the road,” she said.

Skookum also hopes to come to some kind of agreement with the fellowship group.

 “I know they already spent a considerable amount of money,” he said.

“But that doesn’t mean we’d have to pay that back, because there was no consultation on their behalf or by the government — there wasn’t much attention paid to it by all sides.

“There was just no consultation — again,” he said.

A meeting between the First Nation and members of the Christian fellowship is scheduled for this week.