Signs pop up near Fort York, warning dog owners of shallow graves

If you've been walking through the Strachan Avenue park recently, just west of Fort York National Historic Site, you may have noticed some curious signs popping up.

The museum manager wants to alert residents to the 19th Century burial ground beneath their feet

Signs around Strachan Avenue are warning dog walkers not to let their dogs dig in the 155-year-old military cemetery beneath their feet. (Greg Ross/CBC)

If you've been walking through the Strachan Avenue park recently, just west of Fort York National Historic Site, you may have noticed some curious signs popping up.

"Please don't let your dogs dig in this cemetery," they read. "Burials are often shallow."

The notices were put up by staff at the museum to alert dog owners to what is beneath their feet — approximately 200 graves dating back 155 years.

To the far west side of a large area known as the Garrison Common, down between the railway to the north and the Gardiner Expressway to the south, is the Strachan Avenue Military Burying Ground.

A view of the memorial area in the Strachan Avenue Military Burial Ground. (Greg Ross/CBC)

Soldiers and their wives and children were laid to rest in that area from 1862 to 1911. There are only records for 97 of the people buried in the cemetery.

Most of the burials took place before the British army relinquished the garrison to the Canadian military in 1870. There may also be the remains of American soldiers who fell during the Battle of York in 1813.

And lately, David O'Hara, the museum's manager, has noticed holes being dug in the cemetery ground, sometimes a foot deep. The culprits are presumably local dogs.

"We're not your typical park," O'Hara told CBC Toronto. "The entire central part of the Common is like the rest of Fort York — a registered archaeological site."

The Strachan Avenue Military Burying Ground is the scene of Remembrance Day ceremonies. (Fort York)

O'Hara says many people have moved to the area over the last few years, and more are coming, which could cause problems for a sensitive area like the 155-year-old cemetery.

A new pedestrian bridge, called Garrison Crossing, will cross the train tracks to the north to make it easier for foot traffic to move from Trinity Bellwoods Park and the Common. As well, the highly anticipated Bentway project is set to open this winter, not to mention all the new condos going up in the area.

"There's thousands of new units going up around the fort," O'Hara told CBC Toronto. "A space that wasn't heavily used in the past is becoming increasingly used by all sorts of residents for walking their dogs and using it as a central part of the park system down here."

But he says they've been preparing for the influx of residents for quite some time. O'Hara says the fort welcomes new visitors to use the Garrison Common and Strachan cemetery as a thoroughfare. But, he says, they should also treat it with care.

"We want to move people through the space," said O'Hara. "And we want them to feel a sense of ownership when it comes to the fort."

'Service, sacrifice and commitment'

Warrant Officer Glenn Miller, retired after 25 years with the Royal Canadian Artillery, is a registered speaker for The Memory Project, which is an organization that brings schools and community groups together with veterans who volunteer to speak at events.

Warrant Officer Glenn Miller. (Submitted)

He says it's important for people to appreciate the fact that the military cemetery is so close to where they live.

"The country has been built on military participation throughout our history," Miller told CBC Toronto. "It's important that people know and understand the contribution that veterans have made, and to respect their service, sacrifice and commitment in helping to build their particular neighbourhood."

Fort York will hold a Remembrance Day ceremony at the memorial that stands on the cemetery site. Miller says people walking through the site that day, or any other, should keep those soldiers buried below in mind as they pass through the park.

"For many Canadians, they've never had the worry of having someone else's tank drive down their neighbourhood," said Miller. "We are fortunate to enjoy that freedom ... at a cost that's quite cheap compared to other countries."

Marc Lescoutre, a spokesperson for Veterans Affairs Canada, spoke to CBC Toronto about the issue.

"We would remind Canadians that these are special places, and ask them to remain respectful when visiting monuments war memorial and other sacred landmarks," said Lescoutre.