City transfers controversial plot beside cemetery

The Yukon government will be getting its land transfer from the City of Whitehorse for the new Sarah Steele detox centre, but it will have to be extremely careful developing the land.

The Yukon government will be getting its land transfer from the City of Whitehorse for the new Sarah Steele detox centre, but it will have to be extremely careful developing the land.

City council approved the transfer of land behind the current Sarah Steele building and next to the Pioneer Cemetery on Monday night.

But the land in question may contain unmarked graves. Twelve sites of interest were identified by ground-penetrating radar, and Whitehorse resident Scott Howell told council last week that he believes his infant brothers may be buried in the area where construction of the detox facility is planned.

Mayor Dan Curtis urged the government to treat the land with respect and to continue work to investigate the dozen possible unidentified gravesites on the land.

“Not to belabour the point, but … if there is any indication whatsoever that any First Nation person’s grave is in that area, the government will contact the appropriate First Nation,” Curtis said.

Health Minister Doug Graham spoke before the vote, explaining how important the new detox facility is, and promising to handle the land in question with care.

He said the best place for a new detox centre is close to the current Sarah Steele building because it will present the fewest barriers possible.

“We feel it’s an ideal location but we also wish to advise you that archeologists from the Department of Tourism and Culture will be on site hopefully by October with backhoes to dig holes and ascertain exactly what is on the site,” Graham said.

The government will follow due process if any graves are found, especially in notifying the appropriate First Nation governments if any indigenous burial sites are uncovered.

“We have no intentions of doing anything if there are remains at that site. If there are remains found outside of the Pioneer Cemetery and we are able to find them, we will try to ascertain who they are, who the relatives are, and provide them the opportunity for burial in a site that will be recognized,” he said.

If no graves are found, Graham said the government hopes to begin construction next year.

Mayor Curtis said that the Whitehorse Baptist mission schools were in the area near the cemetery for a very long time. The churches are the best resource for records, Curtis said, and he encouraged Graham to consult with them before going ahead with work.

When Graham worked for the city, part of his responsibility was caring for the city’s cemeteries and he knows how spotty the burial records are, he said.

Yukon Community Services director Linda Rapp said that as far as the records show, any burials would have taken place within the Pioneer Cemetery grounds and not on the land in question.

She also said that a plan is currently in the works for some sort of memorial to pay tribute to the bodies in the unmarked graves in the cemetery

After the land transfer bylaw passed third reading on Monday night, Scott Howell said he was satisfied that council had heard his concerns and that the Yukon government would handle the site carefully.

“My big concern was that if they discovered a site with an infant at the end of the graveyard where I believe my brother is, that there wouldn’t be the type of due diligence to make sure that something fitting was done,” Howell said.

“I am satisfied that the city has a better idea of what’s going on, and that moving forward, Doug Graham has also made a commitment to preserving the site if in fact they do find any graves there,” he said.

Contact Jesse Winter at

jessew@yukon-news.com