Man ends hunger strike at Niagara-on-the-Lake cemetery, town council pledges to pursue restoration efforts

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Published April 13, 2023 at 2:02 pm

A 76-year-old man fighting for the restoration of 19 headstones located in a Niagara-on-the-Lake cemetery for Black settlers called off his brief hunger strike on Tuesday (April 11).

James Russell, who chained himself to a sign at the Niagara Baptist Church burial ground on April 10, told CTV News Toronto that his protest “was an act of desperation” after trying to convince the town to “do the right thing” and “provide some respect to the folks who are buried there.” 

According to a recent CBC News article, Russell wants the town to cover the $59,000 cost of restoring the headstones in question. He told the news outlet that he planned to continue his protest until Lord Mayor Gary Zalepa agreed to guarantee him, on camera, that the work would be carried out.

CTV News Toronto says Russell ended his protest to attend to a family matter. 

Russell told CBC News that ground-penetrating radar detected 28 burial sites and 19 buried headstones at the cemetery last May.

According to Friends of the Forgotten, a citizen committee working on–and collecting donations for–the Negro Burial Ground Project, the cemetery was established in 1829, abandoned in 1878 and vandalized in the 1950s. 

It’s currently an open field owned by the town and governed by the Bereavement Authority of Ontario (BAO).

While Russell’s protest has ended and another is reportedly in the works (according to local media), the town’s council recently indicated that it has been working towards restoring the cemetery but must go through the proper process and channels to ensure the work is done carefully and respectfully.  

At a committee meeting on April 11, Councillor Maria Mavridis asked for a clear update on what the town intended to do regarding Russell’s request. 

Marnie Cluckie, the town’s chief administrative officer, told council that the town is “committed to honouring those buried at the cemetery and preserving the heritage at the burial grounds” and said that work on the project has been ongoing since March 2022. 

Cluckie told council that Russell made a delegation last spring, asking the town to support efforts to restore the headstones. Cluckie said that Russell offered to cover the cost of ground-penetrating radar.

Calling Russell’s offer generous, Cluckie said he was told that the town would still need to follow a number of steps and seek approval from a range of authorities, including the Province and the BAO, before seeking out and restoring the headstones. 

“Between March and May, [we] worked hard to work with Mr. James Russell to fulfill the requirements, and there were many, and he was so passionate and doing such great work, the staff assisted more than what we normally would in those circumstances. Normally, the applicant would do the consultation, but we were committed to this project as well, so we did much of it on his behalf.”

Cluckie said the town reached out to the BAO, the Black History Society, heritage groups and an archeological firm.

Cluckie said that the BAO can’t act on the results of the ground-penetrating radar alone, as it doesn’t provide conclusive evidence. 

“It will give us a sense of what is there, but it might misread. So what you might think is a gravestone could actually be a leftover tree trunk, or it could be a large stone, but it does give you good information as a starting point,” she said. 

Cluckie said that meetings, consultations and fundraising efforts continued throughout the year and that the results of a stage one archeological assessment should be available by the end of the month. 

The CAO also mentioned the involvement of Friends of the Forgotten. 

According to the citizen committee’s website, the organization was formed to honour the final resting place of the Niagara Baptist Church parishioners by transforming the current site into a “memorial landscape.” 

“The Niagara Baptist Church burial ground is a point of pride for NOTL as a respectfully restored, serene, memorial and historical site that honours the parishioners buried there, their role in the town’s heritage, and the importance of Black history in NOTL,” the site reads. 

The group hopes to identify the people buried on the site, search for their living descendants, restore the burial ground and provide more insight into Black history in the town. 

Cluckie said it can be challenging for municipalities to maintain old cemeteries.

“That doesn’t mean we’re not committed to this. It just means we have a lot of priorities, and we wanted to find other sources,” she said, adding that the town will have to consult with the BAO and Province on next steps after it learns the results of the stage one assessment. 

Cluckie also said public consultations would be in order, especially since living relatives might have concerns about the process. 

“We’re anticipating will have to go to a stage two [archeological assessment] at a minimum, which may be looking to appropriately unearth things if they’re there, and we would seek to do that, and also come up with a conservation plan, which would detail the next steps. Additionally, there’s consultation required with the public because as you can imagine, it’s such a sacred place that people in the community have the right to know what’s happening and if they have any objections to bring that forward to town council before we proceed because they may have loved ones there.” 

“We just need to follow the appropriate process and honour and respect it in the way we should and then bring it to council.”

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