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Steps to save resting place

Settler’s family cemetery has heritage worth saving for the future
Fred Braches has been trying to protect the cemetery for 15 years.

A little-known resting place in the woods of Whonnock could be formally recognized as a heritage cemetery, if the numbers work.

Maple Ridge council agreed on Tuesday to have the heritage commission investigate the costs and steps needed to ensure that the Robertson Family Cemetery be formally recognized as a burial place.

Local historian Fred Braches, though, has heard it all before.

He’s been trying for 15 years to have the cemetery protected.

It’s a settler’s cemetery, he explains.

“Of which we have none.”

It hold the remains of the first European arrivals to this area.

“This is one of the few cemeteries that we have of a settler’s family. These people go back to the 1860s.”

The cemetery is located just behind another property on Byrnes Road, just off Lougheed Highway, and was named after Robert Robertson, from Scotland, who arrived in Whonnock, in east Maple Ridge, in about 1860. Ten Robertson family members are believed to be buried there, including Robert, who may have been the last, in 1912.

The Robertson family was one of the early mixed marriages in B.C. Robert married Tselatsetenate, a Sto:lo woman from Nicomen Island. She, too, is buried there after dying of tuberculosis in about 1886.

However, the property has no headstones or grave markers because it was a family burial ground.

That doesn’t matter, says Braches.

“You don’t keep it because of the headstones. You keep it because of the people buried there.”

It’s about respect, he added.

The property received heritage designation in 2008, but Braches doesn’t think that is enough to protect the property. Changes can still be made to such a property if a permit is acquired.

But by establishing the 900 sq.-m-property as a place of interment, “then it gets registered [provincially] as a heritage cemetery.

“Now, you can’t touch it.”

That may not be an simple process, however.

In order to register the property as a place of interment, the city has to own the property.

A staff report says the city has a charge registered against the site as being sold for non-payment of municipal taxes. However, the property hasn’t actually been transferred to city ownership.

And lawyers say the city could be challenged if it tried to take title to the property. Descendents of Robertson could lay claim to the land.

Although the property is zoned institutional, giving it another layer of protection, the absence of visual clues or gravestones could threaten its future.

The cemetery has already been damaged once, in the 1920s, when the municipality pushed through Byrnes Road, cutting of a corner of the grounds.

“They had no shame to do that,” Braches said.

“We are just trying to protect a burial place. You pay your respects to the people who died there.”