RICHMOND, B.C. - B.C. group warns school development could disturb former Chinese cemetery

The demolition and construction of a high school in a Vancouver suburb could disturb a century-old Chinese cemetery and one of the last links to a Chinatown that has long since faded away, says a local Chinese-Canadian group.

New Westminster, south of Vancouver, once had a bustling Chinatown district with about 1,600 Chinese living in the community by the late 1800s.

Those who died there were often buried in one of a collection of cemeteries adjacent to an old public cemetery -- the current site of New Westminster Secondary School.

The school was erected, largely on top of the various burial grounds, in 1948.

Today, there is little left of New Westminster's Chinatown after decades of demolitions ordered by the city, often condemning the buildings as fire hazards.

The high school is set to be demolished and reconstructed, with the old cemeteries likely to become parking lots.

The group Canadians for Reconciliation wants to ensure the development doesn't disturb the burial grounds of the region's early Chinese settlers, and others.

"This is a remnant of a once-bustling Chinatown -- we need to think of the historical value of something like that," the group's founder, Bill Chu, told a news conference in nearby Richmond, B.C.

"It's not our intent to stop children from going to school. However, we always need to bear in mind that nobody should pit the living against the dead, either."

It's unclear how many bodies, if any, are still buried underneath the school and the surrounding parking lots and fields.

It was traditional at the time for Chinese families to exhume bodies and return them to China, and the school board believes that would have happened to nearly all of the remains.

But Chu said it's possible not all bodies were removed, and more work needs to be done to be sure.

A small area was tested using radar and more than 200 possible graves were identified, although Chu said the testing only covered a small area that didn't include the sections of Chinese cemetery.

Chu wants more extensive testing for the whole area.

"Things can happen whereby they may not necessarily be exhumed and taken back to China," said Chu.

The school district says the new school will likely be built on a field that isn't believed to be a former cemetery, but parking lots are expected to cover large parts of the cemetery land.

The former cemeteries will still be protected under B.C.'s Heritage Conservation Act, but Chu said he wants even stricter controls on what could happen to the land.

The chair of the school district, James Janzen, said there will likely be some sort of display commemorating Chinese Canadians who were buried there, as well as others including First Nations.

He said the school board will be working with provincial regulators to get approval for any development, which could include more underground testing.

But Janzen said the site of one of the Chinese cemeteries has been dug up before and nothing was found, and there's little evidence more bodies remain in the other former Chinese cemeteries on the lot.

"It has been kind of extensively redeveloped already, and there didn't seem to be any evidence of any human remains," he said.

A local First Nation raised similar concerns about the school development last year.

The Tsilhqot'in, a central Interior B.C. nation also known as the Chilcotin, said a former chief who was hanged in 1865 may be buried beneath the school, along with hundreds of others.

The band is asking for DNA testing on any remains found at the site.