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The Ground Beneath Our Feet

August 17, 2012

The Ground Beneath Our Feet

Despite missing grave markers, lack of map, Dartmouth cemetery is not for the dogs

by Miles Howe

The Cemetery Marker at St. Paul's in Dartmouth speaks of "Hundreds of Indians and Two of their Chiefs" being buried there. Maps to the burial site have been lost or destroyed, and grave markers potentially hauled away as rubble. Photo: Miles Howe

DARTMOUTH, NS—A small party stands at the northwest corner of St. Paul's cemetery, staring pensively at what appears to be nothing but a grassy knoll.

We are hemmed in by the thick foliage of Giant Knotweed (polygonum sacchalinese) that surrounds the burial ground on three sides. Behind us lean a smattering of aging tombstones from Catholic families.

Here though, 100 feet away in the field next to the grave markers, there is only the whisper-silent undulation of clean-cropped, rolling grass.

A casual observer would likely not conclude that this field is part of the cemetery. But this is what Don Awalt has come today to explain.

“Lewis Benjamin Paul, Mi'kmaw Grand Chief, was buried almost right here,” says Awalt, an environmental planner with a grandfather buried somewhere in St. Paul's cemetery. “In the late 1970s, there used to be a tripod of stones here, marking his grave,” he says.

Bonnie Murphy, cemetery administrator for the Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM), looks on, clutching a rolled-up surveyor's map of St. Paul's. We spread the map, but it gives no hint of Paul's final resting place. Paul, the great leader, upon seeing his people driven to starvation by British colonization, famously wrote to Queen Victoria in 1841:

“I have seen upwards of a thousand Moons. When I was young I had plenty, now I am old, poor and sickly too. My people are poor. No Hunting Grounds, No Beaver, No Otter, No Nothing. Indians poor, poor forever, No Store, No Chest, No Clothes. All these woods once ours. Our Fathers possessed them all. Now we cannot cut a Tree to warm our Wigwam in Winter unless the White Man please.”

Indeed, most of Murphy's map is nothing but blank, white space hemmed in by surveyors’ lines. There are several rows of numbered plots outlined on the map, but no more than two dozen are even named.

Murphy can't even be sure whether the nameless plots contain bodies or not.

“We've only taken it over since amalgamation [of Halifax and surrounding areas to create the HRM], and our records are very scarce,” says Murphy. “We're digging [for information] ourselves. We've contacted St. Paul's to see what we can get. We're trying to talk to people who've maintained it prior and everything's scarce.”

The wind picks up, and the map begins to buckle and crease. The group cannot determine which way is north on the map, and it is decided that an HRM survey team will be contacted to re-determine the boundaries of the cemetery.

Awalt leads the group over to a willow tree.

“This is where Napwisin We'jitu is buried, and there used to be a marker somewhere in the grass,” says Awalt. The group peers amidst the overgrowth.

“He was among the top Mik'maq warriors of all time.”

Despite HRM Parks and Open Spaces’ lack of knowledge, there is no question that this site has been a Mi’kmaq burial ground, as well as a Catholic cemetery, for a long time. It has also changed hands, and fallen into states of neglect, several times in recent history.

John Martin's The Story of Dartmouth notes that the cemetery first opened in 1835, and consecrated in 1845. Awalt says that Mi'kmaq were using the land as a burial ground long before that, and notes that the oral tradition suggests Father Thury, one of the famous French “Warrior Priests,” consecrated the land in the late seventeenth century.

A marble tablet, which still stands at St. Paul’s, was erected in Dartmouth in 1962. The tablet notes that “Hundreds of Indians and Two of Their Chiefs” are buried there—though it also says that, despite an ever-increasing number of Catholic dead in the 1800s, the cemetery was only used until 1865. (Awalt says this applies to “white” burials only, and that Mi'kmaq continued to use the area after this.)

The 1962 monument unveiling also saw an extensive clean-up of the property. A Dartmouth Free Press article notes that “20 truck loads of rubbish were carted away” before Father Michael Laba, of St. Paul's Parish, had the area fenced in.

According to Kenneth Redmond, boyscout leader at St. Paul's parish at the time, Father Laba also undertook an extensive mapping of the area to determine exactly where the “Hundreds of Indians and Two of Their Chiefs” were buried.

“Father Laba asked me to...survey St. Paul's cemetery, like record where the stones were; show where Mi'kmaw people were,” says Redmond. “And so I did that and gave him a plan. Since that time Father Laba has died, and I lost all my belongings, including [the cemetery map] in a house fire.”

That map, of which there is perhaps one surviving copy, is currently in absentia.

“We stood [the grave markers] where they were laying,” says Redmond. “They were a little bit scattered but you could see a pattern to it.”

In 1967, a re-development plan was undertaken to see St. Paul's become an active burial ground once again. But by the late 1970s, the place had become a “jungle.” Cora Greenway, writing in the summer 1980 edition of Canadian Collector, notes that when she walked the area in 1978 she found “no trace” of the shale slabs.

“The place was in a mess,” writes Greenway. “The grass was knee-high, half the stones toppled over and the walking most treacherous due to the rocky terrain.”

In 1979, as part of a neighbourhood improvement program, the City of Dartmouth remodelled the cemetery into its current incarnation. Benches were added, stones were again righted, and a paved walk was laid that connected urban development above the cemetery to Alderney Drive. It became something of a park, with a cemetery in the middle.

In 1994, with space for the deceased again at a premium in Dartmouth, the city cast an eye towards re-developing St. Paul's and expanding the cemetery onto the grassy field next to the tombstones. But a strong campaign, led by then Mi'kmaw Grand Chief Ben Syliboy, halted the expansion plans. A 1994 Daily News article notes that estimates as to the number of Mi'kmaq buried there ranged “into the thousands.”

There are now clear signs that people have been sleeping, drinking and defecating in the thick recesses of the knotweed. The shale markers are long gone, and the paved path between the tombstones and the grass, the same area where Redmond remembers righting the fallen grave markers, has become a popular dog-walking thoroughfare.

Mi'kmaw tradition speaks to allowing a burial site to reconstitute itself with native species, but the knotweed is an introduced, invasive species, and Awalt wants it removed. He also wants the HRM to ensure cemetery bylaws, which include letting no dog walk on grave sites, are enforced over the entire area. (Domestic animals defecating on graves is one of those taboos that transcends cultural boundaries.)

As we stand, a member of [the] Mi'kmaw Warriors Society, one of whose mandates includes protecting the burial places of Mi'kmaq, approaches the group. In a clear voice he promises to return to the cemetery with his Warriors, armed if need be, if the entire area is not given the same jurisdiction as any cemetery in the HRM; meaning no dogs, and no sleeping, partying, or defecating on graves, marked or not.

In 1990, a significant percentage of Warriors at Kanesatake were Mi'kmaq, and the man's words bring a stunned hush to the group.

Two weeks later, St. Paul's cemetery is undergoing another facelift.

Bonnie Murphy's survey team has put down preliminary markers. Rebar stakes, driven into the ground and spray-painted neon orange, indicate that Lewis Paul's grassy knoll, and more, is indeed now considered part of the cemetery. Knotweed is being attacked by a crew of city workers with a small backhoe.

“Since our meeting, we have had the surveyors…lay out the boundaries on the site,” says Brian Phalen, of HRM Parks and Open Spaces. “The preliminary work does show that that area that we were in, up by the steps, is certainly included in the cemetery site...We'll be posting the 'No Dogs Permitted Under The Cemetery Bylaws' signs in that section of the property.

“Certainly there are portions of that property that aren't laid out as grave sites, per se...But certainly we do know and recognize that being a traditional burial site, there were many Mi'kmaw burial sites that wouldn't be marked.”

As for the shale slab grave markers and Father Laba's corresponding map, it remains to be seen if they will ever be found. It may well be a return to tradition—in which Mi'kmaw graves went unmarked—by necessity.

"The important thing here is that a pre-contact burial ground is recognized for what it is," says Awalt. "That the grandfathers and grandmothers buried there finally receive the dignity and respect deserved...and this applies to non-natives buried there as well."

Miles Howe is an editor with The Dominion and is a contributing member of the Halifax Media Co-op

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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