Construction across possible First Nation burial grounds blocked

A controversial plan to build a church on a burial ground in Carmacks has been hindered by a recent Yukon Environmental Socio-economic Assessment Act…

A controversial plan to build a church on a burial ground in Carmacks has been hindered by a recent Yukon Environmental Socio-economic Assessment Act order blocking the grading of a road to the proposed site.

“(The board) has determined that the project will have significant adverse environmental or socio-economic effects in or outside Yukon that cannot be mitigated,” said a decision report issued on October 17th, following approximately five months of assessment.

In 2002, the Carmacks Christian Fellowship was granted a five-year lease on the former burial site with an option to purchase. An access road has already been cleared, and the lot has already been cleared and leveled.

The latest report from the Yukon Environmental Socio-economic Assessment Board only prevents grading of the access road with heavy machinery.

“The use of heavy machinery for clearing and grading will disturb not only the surface layer, but will likely result in the disruption of the subsurface where burial sites may exist,” according to the report.

Traditional knowledge and earlier soil disturbances were the only evidence for the burial ground. Forest fires in the 1920s, and again in the 1940s, wiped out all grave markers and spirit fences in the area.

The environmental assessment could not determine the exact location of burial sites overlapping the proposed project. However, given the existence of graves on both the east and west hillsides, it was “likely” burial sites existed on the proposed project area.

“My rough estimate is that the Carmacks Christian Fellowship land is about 100 metres south of the area of known graves,” says a July letter by Ruth Gotthardt of the Yukon Archaeology Program.

“It is our opinion that had there been more graves in the area, they would have been exposed at the time the ground was disturbed,” she wrote.

In 1974, construction work on the Klondike Highway unearthed as many as nine First Nation graves in the area. A bulldozer digging into a knoll came upon a full-size coffin and a metal suitcase alleged to contain the remains of an infant.

Graves were relocated to a marked section on the northwest side of the Klondike Highway and construction continued.

“During this time the Yukon government knowingly built the highway through the sacred burial grounds regardless of the protest from our elders,” read a letter to the assessment board from concerned members of Little Salmon/Carmacks.

“Our ancestors were unearthed, including babies. The ancestors were then piled on the side of the road and buried in a mass grave.”

Another letter stated that construction crews had been notified that they were digging into a burial site, but had proceeded nevertheless, taking it as a rumour.

Even then, First Nation grave disturbances were nothing new to Carmacks. In 1969, three graves had been accidentally unearthed at a different location.