Neglected prison graveyard restored in shadow of New West condos

Neglected prison graveyard restored in shadow of New West condos
Heres why New West residents will be asked for more info when applying advisory committees
City of New Westminster restored 47 known burial sites in a former prison cemetery and located as many as 14 unmarked others.

New Westminster Coun. Jaimie McEvoy kneels beside the grave marker for Gordon Hawley in the restored B.C. Penitentiary Cemetery in New Westminster Wednesday. McEvoy led the city task force that restored the cemetery in the Glenbrook Ravine Parklands. Gerry Kahrmann / PNG

Among the men buried in a once-overgrown, nearly forgotten cemetery in the shadow of condominiums north of downtown New Westminster lies Lewis Colquhoun, a one-time partner of “gentleman train robber” Bill Miner.

Colquhoun was one of dozens of inmates of the long-shuttered B.C. Penitentiary who were buried there between 1913 and 1968 after their bodies went unclaimed by friends or family. The prison cemetery, in the Glenbrook Ravine Parklands, is a historic site that a City of New Westminster task force physically restored over the past two years and prepared to unveil Wednesday evening.

Members of the task force cleaned headstones by hand, installed interpretive signs and located several unmarked graves during the restoration effort. The work was much needed, said Jaimie McEvoy, head of the task force and a city councillor.

“It’s been neglected. The land was transferred to the city when the prison was closed (in 1980) as kind of a formality. … It became a very overgrown, bushy area and just forgotten, really. The only people who really knew about it were a handful of people at the B.C. Pen itself,” McEvoy said.

Colquhoun, who is likely the cemetery’s most recognizable occupant, was buried in an unmarked grave, said McEvoy.

“They were folk heroes,” he said of Colquhoun and Miner. “And they robbed trains as gentlemen. They carried guns but they never shot at anybody, which was a very deliberate decision on their part. They were always polite with people. It’s said that they invented the phrase ‘hands up.’”

Most occupants of the cemetery died in their 40s and 50s, McEvoy said. The leading causes of death were suicide and tuberculosis, which “may speak to prison conditions at the time,” he added. Prisoners made the coffins and the nails and they dug the graves.

Duncan Shanks checks out the sign and map Wednesday at the entrance to the restored B.C. Penitentiary Cemetery in New Westminster. Gerry Kahrmann / PNG

Among the 47 people whose burial sites could be identified was Gordon Hawley, prisoner No. 8869. He went to jail after being convicted of stealing $15 of socks, McEvoy said. Joseph Smith, prisoner 1433, and Herman Wilson, 1629, each had attempted to escape from jail. Five other men were Doukhobors who were sent to prison for public nudity. A man named Sook Silas was once an occupant of the cemetery, but he was repatriated to a First Nation in the B.C. Interior, McEvoy said.

Bill Chu, the head of the Canadians for Reconciliation Society, applauded the city’s restoration work, but said he believed it had offered an opportunity for deeper reconciliation work between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians.

To that end, Chu helped plan a grassroots event at the cemetery for 4 p.m. on Wednesday — two hours before the city’s official event — to acknowledge part of the site’s Indigenous history, including telling the story of Jonnie Peter, prisoner 880, who Chu said had been a member of the Penelakut First Nation.

Asked about Chu’s concerns, McEvoy said he agreed with the general direction of his organization, but said in this case the city had been in contact with First Nations about the work it was doing.

In all, 15 First Nations were invited to Wednesday’s event, including the local Qayqauyt First Nation, McEvoy said.

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New Westminster residents applying to serve on city committees in 2019 may find theyre being asked to provide more personal information in the past – and heres why.

In an effort to better reflect New Westminsters diverse community, the city is taking steps to try and identify individuals from a variety of backgrounds for the citys advisory committees. With no way to identify individuals from the citys diverse communities, staff suggested the recruitment form could ask applicants to identify their gender identity and their ethnic background, if they so desired.

My request is for more – more information about people, said Coun. Jaimie McEvoy. I think that involves tick boxes or something like that.

While the steps outlined by staff may help identify applicants from various cultural communities, McEvoy said it doesnt indicate if a person is disabled or is LGBTQ, which socioeconomic category they fit into or whether theyre renters or homeowners.

My request is that it be more specific in allowing people to provide more information about themselves so that when we are appointing our committees we can strive to achieve, with better information, that those committees start to look like the community as a whole, he said.

Coun. Patrick Johnstone said he wants the forms to be clear that the information is being collected solely for the purpose of helping the city address the issue of diversity on committees.

I think its an important first step, he said. I think this is not the entire job to be making sure that our committees represent our community, but we have to start collecting this data or we are not going to get anywhere as far as moving in that direction.

In November 2017, council approved a motion by Coun. Mary Trentadue directing staff to research, review and report back to council about embedding a diversity mandate into the citys committee programs and policies.  In February, council approved a motion by Coun. Chuck Puchmayr that the city allow for a minimum of one First Nations representative per committee.

Coun. Bill Harper said the city has had a laissez fair approaching to increasing diversity by including more cultures and women on city committees, but wants to formalize attempts of increasing diversity.

I think it makes sense to reach out and reflect the diversity of the city, Puchmayr said. What a breath of fresh air.