Ex-Mounties want Fairmont heritage building saved, officer’s ashes under flagpole

Vancouver city council voted unanimously to rezone the 21 acres owned by Canada Lands Company CLC Ltd. and the Musqueam Indian Band, Squamish Nation and Tsleil-Waututh Nation Partnership

Former RCMP members want Fairmont heritage building, located on Heather Lands, saved, and Supt. Joe Atherton’s ashes under flagpole | Photo: Dan Toulgoet

A former private school that became the B.C. headquarters of the RCMP could stay standing for more than a decade, but Vancouver city council heard May 24 that nobody is willing to pay the hefty price to move it from the Heather Lands. 

Vancouver city council voted unanimously to rezone the 21 acres owned by Canada Lands Company CLC Ltd. and the Musqueam Indian Band, Squamish Nation and Tsleil-Waututh Nation Partnership. They are planning 2,600 units in buildings ranging in height from three to 28 storeys. They also want to replace the 1912-built, heritage-listed Fairmont Academy Building with an Indigenous cultural centre in the last phase of development, some 10 to 15 years from now. 

General manager of planning Theresa O’Donnell said the cost of moving and restoring the building could be $47 million and city staff have failed to find someone to take it off the site. 

“The decision will be dependent on the [development permit],” O’Donnell said. “But it is my recommendation that we go ahead and plan for demolition of that building.”

The 27,000-square-foot, two-storey building was originally a private school that operated during the First World War before being converted to military hospital use from 1918 to 1920. The RCMP acquired the Fairmont Barracks/Stables in 1920 and it remained the provincial headquarters building until 1950. The RCMP left the Heather Lands campus in 2012 for a new provincial headquarters in Surrey. 

Several councillors said they did not want the city to stand in the way of the First Nations’ desire to remove the building due to their historical grievances with the Mounties. 

“We need to be clear about whose heritage we're prioritizing,” said Coun. Jean Swanson. “And I want to prioritize Indigenous heritage.”

“This is actually causing us to all think differently about what heritage is, and it means different things to different people,” said Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung. “But I see a lot of hanging on to something that has done a lot of harm to a lot of people.”

Coun. Colleen Hardwick said the Heather Lands as a whole are “moving in the exact right direction that I think reconciliation was intended to be,” but she opposes the potential demolition of the building. She unsuccessfully proposed an amendment aimed at preventing the Fairmont case from setting a citywide precedent.

“My one reservation had been the treatment of this heritage property,” Hardwick said. “It has historical significance that predates it becoming an RCMP station. And, as the representative on the heritage commission of this council, I would be remiss if I did not draw attention to that. I understand the desire to make things go away that have negative feelings associated with them. But I remain hopeful that there may be a way to resuscitate it in some way.”

City council had received letters from two former Mounties against demolition. They said in their letters that the building should remain for historical purposes and that the remains of at least one Mountie are buried on the property. 

RCMP Veterans’ Association Vancouver governor Donna Morse is co-editing a book called Duty Done: Memories of the Fairmont Barracks that includes the story of a 79-year-old RCMP officer’s wishes for his ashes to be placed on-site. 

“Supt. Joe Atherton's remains were buried under that flagpole in 1988 and remain there today,” Morse wrote. “Whatever happens in reference to development of the lands, it is hoped that this site will be handled with the dignity and respect as it deserves. It is important that Supt. Atherton's remains will be reinterred and the Vancouver Veterans look forward to working with the city and MST in this regard.”

Morse suggested that the Fairmont Building be saved as a facility that shows the good and bad of B.C.’s history, to promote reconciliation. 

“It is felt that the Fairmont Building could be used as a catalyst to ensure that uncomfortable history is not rewritten but is understood by those generations that follow,” she wrote. 

Like Morse, Peter German does not oppose redevelopment of the land. But he wants the Fairmont saved.

German is the former commander of the RCMP in Western Canada, known better in recent years as the author of reports on money laundering in B.C. Last year, he spearheaded the establishment of the Vancouver Anti-Corruption Institute at the University of B.C. 

German said Atherton joined the RCMP in 1932 and worked his entire career while based in the Fairmont.

“It is unknown if other members of the force were buried on the Fairmont grounds and, if so, how many,” German wrote. “It is of the utmost importance that Supt. Atherton’s remains and those of any other members of the force be located and preserved.”

The Heather Lands are the first major proposal to city council from the three first nations who are also owners of the Jericho Lands and the former Liquor Distribution Branch centre. The latter is a partnership with the Aquilini family. 

The Jericho Lands are the Canadian Olympic Committee’s first choice for an Olympic Village site should Vancouver be chosen as host of the 2030 Winter Olympics.