A nearly 70-year-old New Westminster high school plagued with rats, mould, asbestos, and lead paint issues is finally being replaced.
The old school was built in 1949 and is one of the largest secondary schools in B.C.
Education minister Mike Bernier says the province is committing $106-million, with construction beginning next year.
BY 2019, the new school should be opening its doors.
“Granted it’s going to take a bit of time now, the ball is in the court of the school district to start going through the process of making sure the engineering work is done and getting ready to put out the bids for a design build process to build this school.”
The replacement of the school has been a top priority for a number of years, due to the school’s poor condition and high seismic risk.
But the project is already a touchy subject, with the fact that First Nations and Chinese remains were buried in cemeteries at the site long ago.
Chair of the New Westminster School Board Jonina Campbell says people are going to come with strong feelings about how the land, with its historical remains will be used.
“We are committing to not building on any burial site that said that part of it still has to be worked out.”
“This is an enormous site. There is at least 2.2 acres of cemetery in addition to heritage conservation area. We are going to look to make sure that this is, what I would call an opportunity provincially, to partner education with history making this a place where in New Westminster we tell a story about what happened and we make sure we never repeat those mistakes again.”
It’s a sentiment the Education Minister is echoing.
“We’re going to correct the historical wrongs that were made when the old school was built in 1949, so the new school will highlight a great new education complex for students, it’s going to fix that, with a great collaboration over the coming years.”
But while officials are pledging to treat remains on site with respect… not everyone is satisfied.
Bill Chu with Canadians for Reconciliation says plans to rebuild New West Secondary School raise real questions about how serious the province is about real reconciliation.
“So just four months ago, with big fanfare, they described this site as significant, as most significant, most historical ect. for the Chinese community in New Westminster. And now they turn around and want to trash it all together and build a school on top of it.”
Chu says the province didn’t contact any of 33 stakeholder groups with historic ties to the site, including First Nations groups, and describes the project as a “pre-election goodie.”
Campbell says now they need to establish an advisory committee on how to memorialize the remains.
Bernier bristled at the suggestion this announcement is just electioneering before next year’s provincial vote.
“We’re in an NDP riding, we are in an area that needs this investment, this is classified as a number one priority. Unfortunately the timing of this announcement was delayed because we wanted to ensure that we were engaged with all the different partner groups to make sure we’re doing this right.”
Parent fears it’s too good to be true
The announcement is being met with cautious optimism by at least one parent.
Mona Boucher says the community has been promised a new school before.
“The real official announcement I think was in 2007 and then they came with the heritage issues, and they just stopped! There was no political will to resolve the issues about the cemetery. And so this time I want to know if something else comes up…if somebody files an injunction tomorrow, are they going to fight it, right? Or are they just going to go, ‘oh no there’s another problem, too bad, New West’.”
Boucher says New West Secondary is so awful the district bleeds kids to other municipalities with better schools.
“Hopefully today we can put all of this behind us and get moving on building a new high school.”
Mayor Jonathan Cote addressed the sensitive issues complicating efforts to build a new school.
“It definitely is a complex site and one of the biggest challenges is that it was a former burial site. There is no doubt this is probably going to be one of the most complicated high school projects there is. I know our school board has worked tremendously hard to try and resolve those issues. A lot of the land is actually going to be dedicated back to passive use for the burial grounds.”
Current school “scary.”
The BCNDP MLA for New Westminster says a new school is long overdue.
Judy Darcy says the current New Westminster Secondary is frightening.
“The school is very scary. I invited the minister to come here in December and he did, and he could see for himself….that there is asbestos, that it is crumbling, that there is lead paint, it is seismically unsafe, there were rat droppings, and that the physical infrastructure is literally crumbling. He saw that for himself. I think that made a difference.”
Darcy says a new school will ensure local students stay local as well as attracting new ones to town.