British Columbia

'A shame': Richmond family to lose memorial bench bought in 1990s

A family that bought a park bench to honour deceased loved ones in Richmond — before the city changed its fee structure in 2003 — hopes to hold on to the bench, and avoid paying $3,000 for another ten years.

Juliette Harvey and her niece Loretta Byrnes hope the City of Richmond will reconsider its tribute-bench fees

Juliette Harvey and her niece Loretta Byrnes sit on a tribute bench they bought for Byrnes' grandparents and parents in Garry Point Park in the late 1990s. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Juliette Harvey, 81, tears up when she thinks about the day at the start of each summer when she used to go down to the shore at Garry Point in Steveston to watch as her father and brothers departed for the fishing season.

"When my dad and my brothers left, I would watch them until they were out of sight — couldn't see their boat anymore," says Harvey. "A little boat getting smaller and smaller."

She has to stop to wipe tears and blow her nose. 

"I'm too emotional," she says, sitting on the Richmond park bench with a plaque bearing her late parents' names, Roméo and Rose Ann Godmaire, alongside another plaque with the names of her sister and brother-in-law, Doris and Harold Grahn.

The bench is perched right on the beach's edge, next to the marina where the fishing boats still come and go all day long.

10-year renewal

Harvey and her family bought the bench in the late 1990s — she can't recall if it was 1997 or 1998. It cost $1,000 and they had to pay to get the plaques made.

But now the City of Richmond wants to pry the plaques off the bench and free it up for another family, unless Harvey decides to pay $3,000 for another 10 years.

The bench memorializes Rose Ann and Roméo Godmaire, who settled in Steveston in 1938 and spent their lives working in the local fishery. (Loretta Byrnes)

"Since 2003, the policy has been clear that there is a 10-year renewal — and it's based on a cost-recovery," said Ted Townsend, spokesperson for the city.

"The benches wear out over time. There's a cost to do repairs — whether it's from weathering or vandalism or other issues that cause it — and the city can't undertake to bear that cost," he said.

Stand-in for headstone

But it's not clear what the policy was before 2003. The tribute bench program began in 1991, and Townsend can only speak for his time at the city, which began in 2000.

Harvey and her niece Loretta Byrnes (daughter of Doris and Harold Grahn), understood the original deal was to buy the bench in perpetuity. Neither has any paperwork to prove it, but based on the 2003 update, it doesn't appear the program, which includes dedications on picnic tables and trees, was orginally created with cost-recovery in mind.

"She was the older sister; she was eight years older than I was and looked after me pretty well," said Juliette Harvey. (Loretta Byrnes/Rafferty Baker/CBC)

There's no cemetery in Richmond — the soil and high water table won't allow it — so for many people who choose cremation, a tribute plaque in the community serves the role of a headstone.

Families like Harvey's who purchased dedications before 2003 were grandfathered in to allow more than 10 years before they were sent renewal notices, but more than 20 years later, the time is running out — the plaques will be removed in April, unless the city bends its updated rules.

Ashes scattered near the bench

"I was shocked, actually, when my aunt told me about it. I was kind of incensed, because I remember when we got the bench. It was a big family deal," said Byrnes. "We come down here often and sit and remember."

Byrnes' parents and grandparents all took part in fishery work in Steveston. If they weren't on boats, they were mending seine nets or working in the canneries.

Harold Grahn was "one of my favourite people in the whole world," says his sister-in-law, Juliette Harvey. (Loretta Byrnes/Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Her grandparents moved to Steveston in 1938 when Harvey was just eight months old.

Their ashes are all scattered in the Fraser River in the area directly in front of the tribute bench.

'So this is the end of it for us'

Byrnes lives in White Rock now, but still comes to Garry Point once a week to walk with her aunt. Harvey's visits are much more regular, and she always makes a point of stopping by the bench — about 340 times each year, by her estimate.

City of Richmond spokesperson Ted Townsend says council's directions on the tribute benches has been clear since a 2003 decision that created a 10-year renewal term and $3,000 fee — and families that dedicated benches before that are bound to the current system. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"If the city doesn't bend, it will be the end, unfortunately, because it's a problem that's going to rear its ugly head in 10 years," said Harvey. "So this is the end of it for us. It's a shame that we'll have to take our memories up the pathway a bit and sit on somebody else's bench."

"This'll be it. We'll take our plaques and go home."


Follow Rafferty Baker on Twitter: @raffertybaker

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rafferty Baker is a video journalist with CBC News, based in Vancouver. You can find his stories on CBC Radio, television, and online at cbc.ca/bc.

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