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Graves could haunt treatment centre plan

The site designated for the territory's new alcohol and drug treatment centre could have old tenants still residing on the property. Unmarked grave sites may be present on the lots, located behind the existing Sarah Steele building.

The site designated for the territory’s new alcohol and drug treatment centre could have old tenants still residing on the property.

Unmarked grave sites may be present on the lots, located behind the existing Sarah Steele building.

If they are, it could be a snag in plans to build a badly-needed new home for alcohol and drug services.

The land is adjacent to the downtown Pioneer Cemetery, and people may have been buried outside of its boundaries.

“In other cases we have noted that people of other religious denominations would have been maybe not buried in the Christian cemetery boundary. So that’s kind of what we’re looking for,” said Christian Thomas, an archeologist with the Yukon government.

Thomas applied this week for a permit to excavate the area in search of human remains, he said. That work will likely take place in late September or early October.

The site was first explored for graves in 2008, when the City of Whitehorse had plans to develop the lots for private sale.

There was anecdotal evidence that there could be burials on the land, said Kinden Kosick, a planner with the city.

So they commissioned a radar scan of the ground beneath the lots.

The survey turned up at least nine sites of interest. These anomalies could be places where something was buried in the past or where the ground was otherwise disturbed, but it would be impossible to know for sure without excavating the sites.

Because of this and other complications with developing the site, city planners gave up the project to focus their efforts elsewhere, said Kosick.

“We had our plate full with land development, so quite frankly we said, ‘Well this has got some issues, let’s just leave it and move on with these other ones.’”

When Thomas and his team of archeologists go into the site this fall, they plan to dig at the sites of interest and also at around 10 other test sites, he said.

An excavator will go in first, digging about five feet down. From there they will work with shovels.

If a coffin is found, and it can be confirmed to be a coffin, work will stop at that site and the grave will be re-buried and marked, said Thomas.

Whatever is found under the ground will be reported back to the team developing the plans for the new Sarah Steele building.

Highways and Public Works does not yet know what will happen if graves are found on the site, said Kendra Black, a spokesperson with the department.

She could not say what options the government might consider in that case.

“Once we determine what is happening, we’ll look at our options at that point,” said Black.

Planning for the new alcohol and drug treatment centre continues, she said.

Whitehorse acquired the lots from the Yukon government in 2001 for a dollar. The city was looking for somewhere to house the offices of the Frostbite Music Society, according to an administrative report prepared for city council.

But in the end, the society set up shop at Shipyards Park and the lots remained empty.

Now, the city plans to transfer the lots back to the territory for a dollar.

The bylaw authorizing the transfer is scheduled for third reading on September 9.

Being so close to the existing drug and alcohol centre, a new facility on the site would likely comply with Whitehorse’s official community plan and existing bylaws, according to the report.

Contact Jacqueline Ronson at