The City of Yellowknife is looking at what its role is in maintaining heritage cemeteries within municipal boundaries, and, in particular, the Back Bay Cemetery.
The issue came up during Tuesday’s governance and priorities committee meeting as to the extent to which the city has an obligation to provide maintenance services to historical burial grounds that predate the establishment of the City of Yellowknife as well as the Government of the Northwest Territories.
Councillors supported having the city seek clarifying jurisdiction of the pioneer cemetery starting next year.
The site is on Commissioner’s Land and the city currently leases the property. The land is also part of the Akaitcho land withdrawal and could be wrapped up in that process in the coming years.
Currently the city relies on the True North Rotary Club to provide volunteer maintenance of the site, which includes raking and weeding in the area. In recent weeks, the club also constructed a new bridge for users to the heritage site — with donated decking material from the city.
The bridge had been built to accommodate increased foot traffic from tourists and other curious explorers looking to access the ice caves and use recreational trails in the area.
But questions have come to the city as to who should oversee things like controlling access to the cemetery, providing fencing, funding archeological assessments or site stabilization or examining if soil is sliding into the lake.
Mayor Rebecca Alty said the issue raises questions as to the city’s obligation to maintain heritage burial grounds because there are others within the city limits that have been identified by the Yellowknives Dene First Nation including in the vicinity of Bristol Pit.
The city is awaiting GNWT approval on revising the city’s southern border, which includes another cemetery on the south shore of Great Slave Lake, Alty added.
“There is the question as to if we are accepting to do the maintenance and cover the costs of the Back Bay Cemetery, are we also accepting and looking to do the maintenance on the other burial grounds within our our municipal boundary?” she said.
Coun. Julian Morse, chair of the heritage committee, said the issue has been coming up during heritage committee meetings and that management of the area has been of concern to residents.
The Back Bay Cemetery holds the bodies of early residents of Yellowknife, and some descendants who still live in the city are interested in the site’s fate. For this reason, the Back Bay location raises more questions than other sites that First Nations may want to manage themselves, Morse said.
“I think in a lot of other jurisdictions, a site like this might be managed by a society or some other kind of non-government organization, and I think that would be a great thing that would happen to this site,” he said. “So part of me is hoping that this conversation spurs that kind of action by citizens.”
Grant White, the city’s director of community services, said that the Back Bay Cemetery is not designated park space under a city bylaw. He added that the city doesn’t have a lot of resources to maintain the site.
“We often rely on feedback and input from the public and those other users out there,” White said. “This past year we worked with the Rotary Club and one of the tour operators to make sure that there was a safe path to the cemetery.”