Kelowna cemetery tours shed light on city's famous and infamous characters - InfoNews

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Kelowna cemetery tours shed light on city's famous and infamous characters

FILE PHOTO - Bob Hayes at the Kelowna Memorial Park Cemetery
July 09, 2020 - 5:30 PM

A Kelowna historian’s tours of the city’s well-known cemetery are shedding light on the city’s past, even if the past wasn’t full of bright stories.

The tours, organized by the Okanagan Heritage Museum, will have historian Bob Hayes taking attendees through Kelowna Memorial Park Cemetery, which he said is “Kelowna’s largest historical site.”

This year’s first event held July 7, returning after the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic in B.C. thus far, saw mostly residents with an interest in their own history, he said. 

The cemetery dates back to the founding of the city in 1892, Hayes said.

“We tend to think of heritage sites as buildings, like the Father Pandosy Mission or Central School… but a cemetery site is a heritage site in that it’s got all the stories of the people who have lived here. There are about 6,000 burials in that cemetery, and every one of those people has a story to tell and they deserve to have their five minutes of fame,” Hayes said.

“History that we are studying involves human beings, for better or for worse, and I think studying history helps explain why we are the way we are. One of the things I talk about a lot is racism in our past. Canadians tend to be very smug ‘oh, we didn’t have slavery,' but we really haven’t been very nice to Chinese immigrants, the Japanese immigrants, the First Nations, people from Southeast Asia. It gives us a chance to reflect on what we’ve done and hopefully learn from it,” he said.

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The next scheduled event, Kelowna’s Forgotten Chinatown and the American “Invasion” is on July 9 at 9:30 a.m. and can take up to 10 attendees.

“It’s one of my favourites as we talk about Chinatown and the Japanese settlement,” Hayes said.

The first wave of Chinese immigrants came to Canada for the gold rush in the Interior. After the gold rush ended some of them stayed and they dispersed in B.C. The Canadian Pacific Railway was another driver for Chinese immigrants. When it was completed in 1885, many couldn’t afford a ticket to return home.

Kelowna’s Chinatown was once located on Leon Avenue, on the outskirts of the downtown core. It was demolished in the 1970s.

On his tours, Hayes will also talk about burials, not just in the cemetery but around it, and highlight some important unmarked graves.

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The tours have different themes, from the Great American Invasion in 1923 to the polio epidemic of 1927, to the naming of Kelowna’s roads.

“I try to have a mixture of some of the well-known (names)… but I also like to pick names, including a lot of graves that aren’t marked,” he said, including William Russell Spears’ grave, a convicted criminal and rapist.

In 1965, Spears shot and killed police officer Const. Neil Bruce. Bruce was responding to a sexual assault of a woman in Westbank when he was shot by Spears. Bruce later died from pneumonia related to his injuries. Constable Neil Bruce Middle School, in West Kelowna, was named in his honour.

READ MORE: Remembering Const. Neil Bruce 50 years after his murder

“Sometimes we have a little discussion. Should his grave be marked by someone who killed a police officer? He was a long-time criminal and he ended up being shot and killed following the murder of Neil Bruce,” Hayes said.

Few people could also afford the luxury of a gravestone, meaning Kelowna’s graveyard has many burials that aren’t marked. Some may have been marked with wooden crosses, but those have since decomposed.

Some people had no families to give them a marker, Hayes said.

To learn more about Kelowna’s history and to sign up for a tour, visit the Okanagan Heritage Museum’s website. The Okanagan Heritage Museum and Okanagan Military Museum have since reopened their doors to the public after temporary closures due to the pandemic.


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