Michael’s Bay Society fears for historic cemetery sites in pioneer village

TEHKUMMAH––Local history buff and amateur archeologist Doug Tracy and his colleagues on the Michael’s Bay Historical Society are concerned about the fate of several cemeteries located on the historic townsite, and they found themselves less than satisfied with the reaction of the town council in regards to forcing the landowners to maintain and preserve those cemetery sites. But the town council finds itself frustrated as well, caught between the Ontario Cemetaries Act, which Mr. Tracy says demands that they take action, and the nebulous state of ownership of the Michael’s Bay property and a prohibition by the RCMP against anyone entering the seized property.

“I don’t understand how they can go against the laws of Ontario,” said Mr. Tracy, following a decision by council to not take any action on the property and its cemeteries on advice of the municipality’s legal counsel. Mr. Tracy maintains that the relevant section of the Ontario Funeral, Burial, Cemetery and Services Act 2002 demands immediate action.

“The act clearly states that ‘a municipality may order a cemetery owner who does not keep the cemetery in good order and repair within a reasonable time specified in the order’,” said Mr. Tracy, who along with Michael’s Bay Cemetary chairman Bill Wilson had petitioned the Township of Tehkummah to force the owners to take immediate action to remediate the cemeteries. “The lawyer who said to do nothing is putting the Tehkummah municipality in contempt of the laws of Ontario,” maintained Mr. Tracy.

Tehkummah Reeve Gary Brown said that he and his council share Mr. Tracy and his colleague’s frustration. “I have been trying to get something done about that property for over 30 years,” said Reeve Brown. “This didn’t all just happen yesterday, there have been a lot of people working on this for decades.”

The current legal limbo of the property came about when it was seized on behalf of the Belgian government as proceeds of crime. The owner of the property was convicted of trafficking in animal steroids in Europe. The seizure of the property is currently under appeal and is being administered by the RCMP on behalf of the federal property management department.

The five cemeteries identified by the Michael’s Bay Historical Society include a Methodist (43 burials), a Presbyterian (four burials), an Odawa (eight burials), an Anglican (four burials) and a Baptist (8 burials).

Of particular concern to the society is one cemetery site that was not identified until 1992, and that was not placed on title prior to the sale and transfer of the property in 2002. These cemeteries have never been properly maintained, suggested Mr. Tracy, who noted that the municipality had been supplied with fencing for the latest cemetery, but has never been installed.

But the Tehkummah council maintains its hands are tied in the matter.

“The truth of the matter is that the place is in lockdown,” said Reeve Brown. “The Mounties have told us plain and clear. Everybody is to stay out.”

Mr. Brown said that he remains confident that the property will eventually be settled and the cemeteries will be rescued. “Nobody is saying it won’t be done,” said Reeve Brown. “I have been working on them for 30 years, and it is frustrating. There are certain rules that have to be followed. It is upsetting to everybody. Michael’s Bay is a special place to everybody in Tehkummah.”

Reeve Brown noted that he is likely related to a number of the people buried in those cemeteries. “I am related to all the major names on Manitoulin,” he said. “I think most people whose families have been on Manitoulin for a long time could say the same.”

Reeve Brown suggested that the cemeteries have been in neglect for a great deal of time, but that the issue will likely be dealt with some time this fall. “The whole thing is in a holding pattern,” he said. “Until the court case is settled it is up in the air.”

Concerns that the legal costs of attempting to short circuit the process far out weighs any likely benefit, said the reeve. “We don’t have the funds to go back there and study a property we don’t own,” he noted.

“The Michael’s Bay committee have made crosses for each of the graves and we have identified which we will put in place when we meet with Canadian Public Works this fall,” said Mr. Tracy.

The known names of people buried in the cemeteries are William Richard Bonas, Jahn and May Bowerman and their child, Eunice Clarke, Violet May Clarke, Jim Frampton, Kate Gorely. James Hilson, Makie Pennie, Turnbull and George Williamson.

Reeve Brown said that he has a great deal of respect for Mr. Tracy and the other members of the Michael’s Bay Historical Society, but that he must remain a cautious steward of the public purse.

Michael Erskine