The Ground Beneath our Feet
DARTMOUTH, NS - A small party stands gathered at the northwest corner of St. Paul's cemetery, staring more pensively than might seem merited at what appears to be nothing but a grassy knoll.
We are hemmed in by the thick, almost impenetrable foliage of Giant Knotweed (Polygonum sacchalinese) that surrounds the burial ground on three sides. Behind us, towards the bustle of Alderney Drive and the lower foot of the Dartmouth Commons, lean a smattering of aging tombstones from Catholic families.
Here though, 100 feet away in the field adjacent 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 constitutes a part of the cemetery. But this is what Don Awalt has come today to explain.
“Lewis Benjamin Paul, the Mi'kmaq 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, searching the knoll for some long-gone sign of recognition.
Awalt waves his hands over the area, as though under the right conditions, through some trickery of light, perhaps the stones could still be touched.
Bonnie Murphy, the cemetery administrator for the Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM), looks on, clutching a rolled-up surveyors' map of St. Paul's. We unspread 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 of these blocks of traced-out rectangles, no more than two dozen are even named.
Murphy can't even be sure whether the nameless plots contain bodies or not.
There has been a disconnect in the bureaucracy and order of record-keeping, and the effect, when applied to the interred quite possibly beneath our feet, is disconcerting.
“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 unwieldy map begins to buckle and crease where it is not fastened down. 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 exact boundaries of St. Paul's cemetery.
Awalt leads the group over to a massive willow tree, surrounded by sedge.
“This is where Weji'tu is buried, and there used to be a marker somewhere in the grass,” says Awalt. The group peers for some trace of shale amidst the overgrowth.
“He was among the top Mik'maq warriors of all time.”
Despite HRM Parks and Open Spaces’ ‘official’ 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, long time. It has also changed hands, and fallen into states of derelict and ruin and neglect, several times in its recent history.
Dr. John Martin's The Story of Dartmouth notes that the cemetery was first opened in 1835, and was consecrated by a Bishop Walsh 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 that Father Thury, one of the famous French “Warrior Priests,” consecrated the land sometime in the late seventeenth century.
A marble tablet, which still stands at St. Paul’s, was erected during Natal Day ceremonies 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 was also the occasion for 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, in order 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 the Mi'kmaq people were,” says Redmond. “There were scattered slabs of slate at that time. 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, at least according to Cora Greenway, the place had become a “jungle”. 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 to put it mildly,” writes Greenway. “The grass was knee-high, half the stones toppled over and the walking [was] 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 again 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'kmaq 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.”
Now, in 2012, there are 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 pathway between the tombstones and the denuded grass, the same area where Redmond remembers righting the fallen grave markers, has become a popular dog-walking thoroughfare.
Mi'kmaq 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 that cemetery bylaws, which include letting no dog whatsoever 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'kmaq 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, as pugnacious a weed as there is, is being attacked by a crew of city workers armed with a small backhoe.
“Since our meeting, we have had the surveyors pop over to the site and take the St. Paul's cemetery map, and 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, on the cemetery map...But certainly we do know and recognize that being a traditional burial site, there were many Mi'kmaq 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 their whereabouts will ever be found. It may well be a return to tradition, in which Mi'kmaq 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."