Planning underway to transform old B.C. high school site on burial ground, as new school celebrated

One of the largest high schools in B.C. is now exchanging a problematic past for a new beginning.

The new New Westminster Secondary School officially marked its opening on Thursday with speeches and a ribbon cutting ceremony, after first welcoming students earlier this year.

Meanwhile work is also underway to address the future of the land the previous school was built on, which is a former burial site.

Part of the history of the old high school from 1949, which sits along 8th Street between 10th Avenue and 8th Avenue, includes a darker chapter in time.

Bill Chu with the Canadians for Reconciliation Society said the building was constructed on top of land once used for burials by groups that faced discrimination and segregation, including the Chinese community.

"Normally, a school opening is no news. But this one happens to be unique...it’s relocated from one site to another, for good reason" he said. "The previous school to this one, was built on top of Douglas Cemetary, which buried people of colour and marginalized (people), Indigenous people."

Qayqayt First Nation Chief Rhonda Larrabee recalled travelling to Victoria in the 1990s with a local MLA to look through historical archives pertaining to the site.

"It became quite emotional for a lot of people," she said. "Half my ethnicity is Chinese. And half the people, or most of the people buried there, were the Chinese immigrants."

Chu said there was initial concern about where the replacement school would be built. An archaeological investigation was carried out to make sure the new school site, which is closer to 6th Street and Mercer Stadium, had no known burial areas.

"The city was gracious enough to swap the land with the school district, resulting in this site," he said. "After so many years of lobbying and community support, we are seeing this today. So this is an excellent occasion to see how reconciliation comes about."

The local Qayqayt First Nation also has an office at the new school’s welcome centre. Chief Larrabee is involved in the plans to tear down the old school and transform the site into a memorial area and green space.

"It’s going to be a place for reflection and calmness," she said. "It’s going to be serene."

Superintendent of schools Karim Hachlaf said the deconstruction of the old high school, which was slated for replacement years ago due to its deteriorating condition and seismic concerns, should start around late spring or early summer next year.

"The work on the conceptual plans for the memorialized passive park has already begun, but very early stages," he said. "Any community organization with a historical link to this site is providing input on the development of the property."

Chief Larrabee said the ground will not be disturbed below a certain number of inches in order to create the new park.

"Hopefully the history of the people who were buried in that cemetery will come out, too," she said.

The new school had an estimated project value of $106.5 million, and was previously described by the province as "the largest school investment in B.C.’s history."

The facility can accommodate close to 2,000 students from grades nine to 12, and is the only high school in the city. The new building features a modern, open design, four gyms, a full-service cafeteria, a 1,260-seat performance theatre, and specialized classrooms for art, music and other fields of study.