Sacred Sites: Dishonour and Healing

A Vigil of Solidarity

There was a tension during that week. You know, was there going to be another attack? Was there going to be an attack elsewhere in the city? And you wonder. – Ed Fitch, Congregation Emanu-El

On a brisk afternoon in January, 2012, Shoshana Litman and her husband, Todd, cycled to the Emanu-El cemetery in Victoria, British Columbia. As they biked, the normally sleepy Fernwood streets became congested. Shoshana and Todd were joined by more than a thousand people, streaming into the Emanu-El cemetery to show solidarity with Victoria’s Jewish community and to stand against intolerance. One week earlier, the cemetery had been desecrated with swastikas, dollar signs, and anti-Semitic slurs. In addition to disturbing the sanctity of one of the oldest cemeteries in Canada, the desecrators had violated the gravestones of Holocaust survivors.[1]

Yet on that January afternoon, there was no sense of defeat or despair. “I was actually blown away by the amount of people,” Rabbi Harry Brechner recalls. “I was shocked,”  remarks Congregation Emanu-El member Isa Milman, “To feel the general hug of the community saying we won’t stand for this, we’re with you, that was the best thing of all.” In this moment, the crime was eclipsed by the outpouring of support and solidarity coming from all corners of greater Victoria.

Most people agreed that the work was most likely that of a drunken lout. Judging by the incorrect spelling and hastily drawn swastikas, cemetery caretaker Geoffrey Perkins immediately doubted that this was an act of organized anti-Semitic aggression. And yet the painting of swastikas should never be taken lightly. While many agree that the incident was merely “a blip” in the cemetery’s long history, much can be learned from the community’s distinctive response to the desecration.

The ritual of gathering in a cemetery to honour the past is a familiar practice.  Yet in this case, rather than commemorating a life, the vigil commemorated Victoria’s ethos of inclusivity, tolerance, and openness.  Following the desecration, Rabbi Harry Brechner called on all of Victoria to respond: “Let’s stand together against these cowardly and hateful acts and show our support for positive community relations.” On January 8th, Victorians answered his call, insisting that no single community should bear the brunt of such an assault, or shoulder the burden of responding to it alone.

This event can be used as a foundation from which to consider other community responses to cemetery desecration. Examining a range of approaches taken in response to similar incidences of historical desecration, this article seeks to contextualize the specific case of Victoria, 2011.




Edited vigil photo
Rabbi Harry Brechner addressing vigil attendees, January 8th, 2012, image courtesy of Harry Abrams





Well, to me it’s always frightening. When people reveal how hateful they are in such a way  […] It was alarming to me, I’m thinking “Okay, what do we expect? What’s to expect in the future?” Racism in Canada is […] just below the surface, it’s always bubbling up.–Sarah Adams, First Nations Clinical Counsellor, Victoria

Emanu-El cemetery, est. 1860

A Sacred Space and a Historic Place: Victoria’s Emanu-El Cemetery

Congregation Emanu-El cemetery was consecrated by Victoria’s tiny yet growing Jewish community on a Sunday afternoon in 1860. The congregation was young, the first of its members arriving only two years earlier, during the gold rush of 1858. The group immediately saw the urgency of consecrating a sacred site where they could lay loved ones to rest, and formed a chevra kadisha, or burial society. Further milestones followed in quick succession, as the congregation began to celebrate religious holidays and form community organizations. By the late summer of 1862, Congregation Emanu-El had officially come into being. The following year, in what one historian has referred to as “an unprecedented multicultural event for the young city of Victoria,” the foundation stone of the Emanu-El synagogue was laid with the support and participation of myriad local organizations, including Masons and Christian faith groups. From these auspicious beginnings, this tiny Jewish community became a bedrock for what is now Greater Victoria. [2]




TimesColonistMay19_D1_2Times Colonist, May 19, 2013, image courtesy of Times Colonist

Following the bust of the gold rush, the congregation’s character changed as families moved to Vancouver in search of other opportunities. Among other factors, this population change shaped the ebb and flow of the congregation’s strength in the 20th century. For example, Congregation Emanu-El’s centenary in 1962 went unmarked by the synagogue’s then small congregation. In contrast, its 150th anniversary in 2012 was celebrated extensively, indicating Congregation Emanu-El’s growing membership, as well as an increased sense of confidence and involvement in the greater Victoria community.

Older than Canada itself, the verdant, scenic Emanu-El burial ground is a local fixture that was once on the outskirts of a trading post and has since been engulfed by a growing and now well-established neighborhood. Today, the cemetery is both a sacred space with personal significance and a deeply historical place that provides a tangible connection to Victoria’s past. As Mike Goldstein, a member of Congregation Emanu-El, notes, when you stand in the cemetery “You’re standing in a historic place and our tradition is very present here.” In speaking to both the sacred and historical resonance of the Emanu-El cemetery, his comments point to why so many Victorians made time to stand up for the cemetery on that cold, cloudy January afternoon.

The Sacredness of Cemeteries

This dual significance – the personal and the historical – expressed by Goldstein, echoes the sentiments of many Congregation Emanu-El members. In his benchmark 1989 work, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire,” sociologist Pierre Nora coined the term lieux de mémoire (places of memory) to describe locations, events, and objects to which these layers of meaning are ascribed. According to Nora, such sites and events are not defined by their own history, but rather by the memories and values of the person or group who attach meaning to them. In this sense, lieux de mémoire may not only be museums, archives, festivals, or monuments, but also birthday traditions or childhood toys. Emanu-El cemetery acts as a lieu de mémoire in two ways: first, it serves as a site of commemoration to the dead of a very specific community; second, it is a landmark carrying historic meaning for a larger community, the City of Victoria. Through its regular use, whether as a burial site or a scenic place to walk, Victorians embed the cemetery with layers of meaning and sustain its role as a lieu de mémoire. [3]


For some, the cemetery represents both a connection with the past and a place where they too in time will be remembered. Ed Fitch, a Congregation Emanu-El board member, visits the cemetery to pay respect to his parents. Beside their plots are two spaces marked out where he and his wife will also be buried. For Isa Milman, the importance of resting amongst family and community reconciles a longer history of injustice:

My own personal history [is] of coming from a family that was exterminated in Europe where there are no graves and no cemeteries to visit. I feel […] a deep connection with the Jewish cemetery here in Victoria and every Jewish cemetery in the world, it’s where I go to visit my people and have a strong sense of connection […] with my tribe.






Sharon Tiffin/News staff January 8, 2012- L-R Gerry Stanford, Andrew Schoonbie and Noemi Hadassamasson talk together before the start of the vigil. A crowd of over a thousand people gathered at a vigil in the Jewish Cemetery on Cedar Hill Road. The vigi organized by Rabbi Harry Brechner of Congregation Emanu-El brought people of all religions together to show their support for the Jewish Community.

Image courtesy of Sharon Tiffin, Victoria News
January 8, 2012- L-R Gerry Stanford, Andrew Schoonbie and Noemi Hadassamasson talk together before the start of the vigil.


Intertwined with such family connections is the cemetery’s value as a beautiful sanctuary, both spiritual and environmental. Perhaps reflecting Victoria’s reputation as an environmentally conscious city, congregants and community members appreciate the cemetery for its natural beauty and ecological value.  “The first time I stepped foot in the cemetery, I was just so impressed,” explains Milman. “I decided this was where I want to be buried, because it really is a beautiful place.”  Brigitte McKenzie is a neighbour to the cemetery whose living room window provides a view into the calm grounds. She explains:

From an environmental point of view, I value the Jewish cemetery for the fact that there’s mature Garry Oaks, that I get to watch out of my living room window every day. Through all the seasons, I enjoy the fact that it is well taken care of. You know there’s a real pride in the cemetery.

Older than the neighbourhoods that surround it, the cemetery has been acquiring these layers of meaning for over a century. As a burial place, a place of family, and a place of sanctuary, this cemetery is a lieu de mémoire, constituting a profound variety of memories and meanings.

Maintaining our Investment

These vital connections felt by Victorians – both those who are members of Congregation Emanu-El and those who are not – demonstrate that the meanings invested in the cemetery are very much alive and well. Scholars have articulated the sacredness of cemeteries as constituting a “distinct and positive expression of religious ideology on the land,” as well as a place that “offers moral and cultural significance to the community.” [4] The importance of cemeteries is kept alive through continuous engagement and the creation of new memories. In this process, cemeteries become inscribed with “sentimental feelings on the place because it is associated with historical, religious, or mythical events that contribute to the culture of its community.” Through this, burial grounds come to reflect conditions and social realities of the surrounding community both past and present. [5]

Yet cemeteries are more than a collection of pasts and meanings; they are places where commemoration is performed. As scholarship on collective memory and ritual emphasizes, events such as the January 8th vigil can serve to reaffirm a sense of shared identity and facilitate mutual bonds and feelings of belonging. [6] Indeed, the vigil allowed Victorians, regardless of their background, to demonstrate solidarity with Congregation Emanu-El and reaffirm the values that unite them as one community. As such, Rabbi Brechner was entirely accurate when he announced to the attendees of the vigil, “We are Victoria!”






Throughout time, cemeteries have served as hallowed ground, a place where the terrain of the living meets with the terrain of the dead. Humans have created the special nature and culture that influences the cemeteries and traditions that take place in their confines. Burial sites are centrally significant to a community’s sense of well-being and indirectly, to the preservation of history by teaching about the past. A cemetery is a living place that reflects the conditions and social realities of the surrounding community both past and present. -Cultural theorists DeMond Shondell Miller and Jason David Riveriera, 348

Reacting to the desecration

Don Denton/News staff Jan. 3, 2011 - Caretaker Geoffrey Perkins stands beside one of the five headstones vandalized with swastikas in the Jewish cemetery on Cedar Hill Road. A removal agent has been applied to the stone in order to remove the paint without damaging the stone underneath. Perkins has been the cemetery's caretaker since 2000.
Image courtesy of Don Denton, Victoria News Jan. 3, 2011 – Caretaker Geoffrey Perkins stands beside one of the five headstones vandalized with swastikas in the Jewish cemetery on Cedar Hill Road.


TimesColonistJan10A5 (2) (2)
Times Colonist, January 10, 2012, image courtesy of Times Colonist

Before understanding the events that followed the desecration, it is important to underscore the visceral reaction that swastikas, dollar signs, and racial slurs on Jewish gravestones provoke. Even four years later, the incredulity in cemetery caretaker Geoffrey Perkins’ voice indicates his inability to comprehend such a hateful act. Pointing to the cluster of graves targeted, Perkins recalls the scene he met that January morning: “Swastikas painted on there, in black. Words on there I don’t even want to repeat […] I was just basically disgusted. Why—isn’t this sacred ground? Isn’t this the one place you don’t do stuff like this?”

After the police, Rabbi Brechner was the first person Perkins called. The Rabbi was understandably upset. The targeted graves commemorated a number of people with whom he had held a close connection to in his personal life. But, in the moment of reaction, he chose to respond in a way that he thought might connect to the perpetrator. Rather than “move it to […] a place of anger or victimhood”, he wanted to do something restorative and educational. “I didn’t want to respond in a […] typical, almost old-school Jewish way of ‘Oh, look what they’ve done to us again,’” he recalls. Instead, he pursued a path that many people saw as progressive.

In an open letter published in the Times Colonist on January 4th, Rabbi Brechner called on the desecrator to come forth to atone for their actions, to learn the stories of the people whose graves they had desecrated, and to repair the damage done to the site. Though many found his approach innovative, for Rabbi Brechner it was intuitive. “To me it just seemed natural, it seemed kind of like the right thing and the simple thing to do.”


Rabbi Harry Brechner explaining his reaction to the desecration, image courtesy of the Times Colonist

There was precedent for Rabbi Harry’s approach to facing perceived anti-Semitism. Recalling some uncertainty from within the congregation about putting up a Star of David over the synagogue’s new building in 2003, Brechner reasserted his belief in being known and knowing others. “When we collaborate and cooperate on social justice and social action issues,” he explains, “When we are really involved in the downtown community, when we’re out about who we are and what we do and we open our doors to others, that’s how we get real security.” For Rabbi Brechner, there is no security in hiding away.


And I think that that kind of played into the sense of inviting others and really saying this is not just, you know, the Jews. […] that was a big piece of my message, that it’s all of us, and that this is not who we are as a community and that this is not what we want, not what we expect. – Rabbi Harry Brechner

While some people wondered if there was such thing as a “dear” angry cemetery desecrator, and others believed that more assertive measures were needed to catch the perpetrator, the offer for reconciliation stood.  Yet there remained a tension. “The steam built up,” explains Fitch. “And the question of what to do about it. […] Was there going to be another attack? Was there going to be another attack elsewhere in the city?”  From outside the congregation, Rabbi Brechner had begun receiving gifts and letters of support, which further spoke to a need for some kind of public commemoration. Board member Michael Bloomfield was instrumental in organizing the January 8th vigil. Along with other members of Congregation Emanu-El and Rabbi Brechner, he believed a vigil could reassure the targeted community and give greater Victoria an organized way to express their support.

Rabbi Harry Brechner speaking to vigil attendees, video courtesy of Victoria News. If there is a problem with this video, please click here


“We Have All Been Attacked”: Examining the Reasons for Victoria’s Response

No one expected over a thousand people that Sunday afternoon. Recalling the legacy of anti-Semitism in the 20th century and provoking a sense of shared violation, the racist nature of the desecration motivated Victorians to articulate that they had higher expectations for their city. In a space where homage is paid to past lives lived, Victorians stood to recommit to values of inclusivity, tolerance, and openness. “You can’t be complacent in hate,” recalls Sarah Adams, remembering why she attended the event. “It’s always bubbling around. […] Every one of us has to show up when something like that happens.”




Sunday afternoon, I attended the vigil at the Emanu-El Jewish cemetery. I so much appreciate the opportunity we all were given to heal. For it was not just the Jewish community that was shocked and brutalized by the recent acts of vandalism. If any individual or group is attacked, we have all been attacked. – Susan Doyle Lawrence, Letter to the Editor Times Colonist, January 10, 2012

Contradicting Victoria’s reputation as a sleepy town, the desecration caused people to question their assumptions as the news traveled through the city. For some, the desecration connected to the longer, international history of malicious anti-Semitism, particularly because the graves targeted included those of Holocaust survivors. “Sadly, some people were frightened,” Fitch remembers. “We have Holocaust survivors in our community and they’d seen this before. It’s a shame.” A letter to the editor written a few days after the desecration also invoked the legacy of anti-Semitism, stating that the “Holocaust of the 20th century is a lesson which should never be forgotten.” McKenzie echoes these thoughts, noting that she was particularly alarmed by an attack so clearly aimed at a faith community. For her, the desecration was emblematic of a still poignant historical legacy:

I’m now just shy of being old enough to have lived through the Second World War so my parents and that generation, which were well represented that day [of the vigil], are people who are still carrying those memories of all the harm that was done to Jewish people [during] the Second World War.

For others, the desecration caused a shared sense of violation, which, for some, was rooted in personal experiences of racial discrimination. Councillor Charlayne Thornton-Joe was notified through a staff briefing. “It was just appalling and upsetting,” she remembers. A long-time caretaker of another historic cemetery in Victoria, the Chinese burial ground on Harling Point, Thornton-Joe describes cemeteries as a place to experience a sense of “comfort, of tradition, culture…a sense of calmness.” For her, the violation of the Emanu-El cemetery was all too familiar: because of similar incidents in the Chinese cemetery, she could relate to the anguish caused by vicious racial slurs sprayed across the headstones of beloved elders.




And, I remember how it made me feel knowing that this was – my grandfather’s buried there, so knowing that my ancestors were targeted in this way – when this happened at the Jewish cemetery I felt equally as, as almost targeted and because of that, that feeling came back. – Councillor Charlayne Thornton-Joe, City of Victoria





Desecrated Headstone at Harling Point Cemetery, image courtesy of Councillor Charlayne Thornton-Joe



For Thornton-Joe, the attack thus created a dual sense of violation. She resented the defilement of a cherished place like the Emanu-El cemetery and she could relate intimately to the pain caused by desecration that is racist in nature. Attending the vigil, Thornton-Joe came not only as a politician representing the city of Victoria, but as a neighbour and community member who understood the suffering caused by a hate crime.

The sense of shared responsibility in repudiating racism is clear in the responses of many vigil attendees. Following the vigil, Susan Doyle Lawrence wrote to the Times Colonist, referencing her personal experience in healing: “I have learned that there is no such thing as someone else’s pain. […] There is no such thing as ‘someone else’s problem.’” [15] Sarah Adams, a First Nations clinical counsellor who engages deeply in questions of social justice, reflected that attending the vigil was not just about sending a message but also about alliances. “It’s not just about anti-Semitism, it’s about building bridges between different groups to support each other in their endeavors to create more peace in the world.”  

The vigil was also a chance for Victorians to teach these values to future generations. Dr. Jordan Stanger-Ross, a historian and Congregation Emanu-El member, brought his children that day. “Anti-Semitism is not something that we’ve shied away from talking about as a family,” Stanger-Ross explains. “I try to share my concerns about the world, about history, with my children. So it seemed natural or appropriate to take them to the vigil.” In the face of hate and ignorance, then, Victorians tried to create a moment of teaching, unity, and inclusivity.

The sense of active necessity to reaffirm these values points to the importance of the work required to continuously stand against racism in any community. McKenzie remembers the vigil as “a really powerful public witness to standing up for principle.” Many residents felt that even in Victoria these principles cannot be taken for granted.  The vigil gave Victorians the opportunity to demonstrate their support for the affected community and reaffirm their stance against race-based hatred and intolerance.

Charlayne Thornton-Joe and her mother at the Harling Point Cemetery, image courtesy of Councillor Charlayne Thornton-Joe




Brigitte McKenzie remembering the vigil at the Emanu-El cemetery, image courtesy of Harry Abrams

Other successful responses to cemetery desecration

Locust grove2

Gravestones at the Locust Grove Cemetery, Shippensburg, PA, image courtesy of the The Sentinel

Other communities have experienced the desecration of their sacred sites. The 2011 incident and response at the Emanu-El cemetery can be used as a foundation from which to consider other responses to cemetery desecration. Each community strategy was shaped by specific circumstances, but they were all successful in increasing community engagement with their sacred spaces. These cases demonstrate that, as with the incident at the Emanu-El cemetery, a sense of shared responsibility for the preservation of lieux de mémoire can motivate those outside of an affected community to stand in solidarity against desecration.

Locust Grove Cemetery

The Locust Grove African-American cemetery in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, seems an obvious choice for historical preservation. Dating from the late 18th century, the burial ground contains the remains of African-American slaves, civil war veterans, and civil rights activists. Moreover, it is a reflection of the segregated nature of American society in the twentieth century; the first African-American burial in the local ‘white’ cemetery did not occur until the 1990s, making Locust Grove the primary African-American cemetery in the region. Despite the many fascinating and saddening historical insights it offers, by 2003 the cemetery was neglected and frequently vandalized. Media coverage of incidents at the cemetery depicted Locust Grove as “bleak and sinister,” further discouraging public use. As such, the burial ground remained an unwelcoming and underused community space, a vulnerable target for desecration. [7]

In 2005, the desecration of a civil war veteran’s gravestone became the catalyst for renewed efforts to restore and protect the cemetery with status as a state historic site. This was achieved through the combined efforts of the Locust Grove Cemetery Committee, the Shippensburg University Applied History Program, and the Shippensburg Historical Society. Damaged headstones have now been restored, a book on the cemetery’s history has been published, and the siteonce considered an eyesoreis today a proud example of Shippensburg’s heritage. The Locust Grove Cemetery is also now integrated into the Civil War Trail program. This recognition as an important national historical site ensures the cemetery’s protection against future neglect.

Shippensburg report 1


Shippensburg report 2Two pages from the final Historic Site Report of the Locust Grove Cemetery. Find the full report here





Kathy Shandrow playing Ida M. Porter, Evergreen Cemetery Walk 2005, image courtesy of the McLean County Museum of History




Wilma Brown playing Julai Duff, Evergreen Cemetery Walk 1997, Image Courtesy of the McLean County Museum of History
Wilma Brown playing Julia Duff, Evergreen Cemetery Walk 1997, image courtesy of the McLean County Museum of History

Evergreen Cemetery Walk
The Evergreen Cemetery Walk in Bloomington, Illinois began in 1995 to combat recurring incidents of vandalism in the historic Evergreen Memorial Cemetery. A partnership between the McLean County Museum of History, Evergreen Memorial Cemetery, and local theatre group Illinois Voices Theatre, has since produced a yearly walking tour. Since its inception, this program has dramatically decreased rates of vandalism in Evergreen Memorial Cemetery, but also in cemeteries throughout the county, and has become part of the community’s annual calendar. Each October costumed characters regale children and adults with the stories of those buried in the cemetery. The museum coordinates with the cemetery, local volunteers, and actors to produce eight days–four days for the general public and four days for students–of historical performances. Candace Summers, Director of Education at the Museum, is a trained historian who has presented this successful model to other communities concerned with desecration. For Summers, it is the collaboration between academic and community organizations that has made the Evergreen Cemetery Walk such a useful educational and anti-vandalism tool. With over 3,700 attendees this past year, such collaboration certainly does seem a viable recipe for success.


James Marlott playing Goodman Ferre, Evergreen Cemetery Walk  2006, Image courtesy of the McLean County Museum of HIstory

James Marlott playing Goodman Ferre, Evergreen Cemetery Walk 2006, image courtesy of the McLean County Museum of History 



c̓əsnaʔəm: 200 Days of Solidarity

In early 2012, construction crews unearthed the remains of four burial sites in əsnaʔəm (pronounced “tzess-naam”), part of the traditional unceded territories of the Musqueam First Nation within present day Vancouver. In response, members of the Musqueam community kept vigil over the exposed burial grounds. Supported by the broader community, including other Aboriginal communities, unions, local politicians and neighbours, the vigil developed into a 200-day vibrant gathering filled with art, song, and storytelling. Dr. Susan Roy, a professor of History at the University of Waterloo, observed that this incident was seen by many as merely the latest in a long string of indignities against Aboriginal people in Canada. “People definitely wouldn’t have seen that as a singular incident, or random, but part of ongoing alienation and dispossession. And part of ongoing invisibility, too.”

In an effort to combat this enduring invisibility, Dr. Roy collaborated with the Musqueam Nation, the Museum of Vancouver, and the Museum of Anthropology at UBC to produce the 2015 series, əsnaʔəm: the city before the city. Over the following year, thousands of people attended exhibits and events throughout the city, increasing awareness of Musqueam history and culture.

All of these successful responses to desecration involved the participation and support of communities that were not directly affected by the incidents of desecration. Members of the Shippensburg Historical Society, for example, did not have family members buried at Locust Grove, just as many of those who attended the Musqueam or Congregation Emanu-El vigils did not have personal connections to the burial sites affected. Nevertheless, the community chose to participate in a shared responsibility for the sacred sites of their neighbours. This support was vital to the successful responses we have examined.

Dr. Susan Roy describing the 2012 vigil at c̓əsnaʔəm, image courtesy of Sharon Stogan


Miusqueam Vigil, 2012, photo courtesy of Sharon Stogan
Miusqueam Vigil, 2012, image courtesy of Sharon Stogan






Assisting with the preservation of the Locust Grove Cemetery required me to play multiple roles beyond that of university professor—including those of salesman, diplomat, project manager, publicist, mediator, spokesperson, tour guide, therapist, laborer, gravestone conservator, and community booster. – Dr. Steven Burg, Historian [8]








Dr. Susan Roy discussing her role as a community collaborator, image courtesy of Sharon Stogan


The role of historians in preserving historical sites

These preservation projects also involved the support of academic historians and academic-community collaboration. Each project, from Locust Grove to the Evergreen Cemetery to the c̓əsnaʔəm exhibit, enlisted historical expertise to tell the stories of their sacred sites and to educate the public about their importance. This academic and community collaboration produced heritage status, educational tourism, major museum installations, and community outreach projects.  While there are no official guidelines for such collaboration, there are two themes evident in each of the cases examined that contributed to their success: a willingness of those involved to make a long-term commitment; and flexibility and dynamism on the part of the participating historians.

Community collaboration to restore and preserve historic sites requires a long-term commitment. In the case of c̓əsnaʔəm, community and academic efforts to communicate the site’s history had been in the works for several years before the 2012 desecration. Indeed, the desecration and attention the vigil generated were important factors in bringing these plans to fruition. Had it not been for this attention, however, project members would have continued their long-term efforts to preserve c̓əsnaʔəm. For Dr. Steven Burg, a public history professor who assisted in restoring the Locust Grove cemetery, such long-term commitments are not only possible but rewarding. Although the restoration took “extraordinary amounts of time,” he was able to regularly enlist eager public history students in this process of research, writing, and fundraising.[7]

Along with this dedication, historians are required to be dynamic in order to achieve the goals of their community partners. In the context of the desecration of First Nations’s sacred sites, of which there is a fraught and violent history, historians cannot simply play the ‘expert.’ In these cases, relationship building and community participation, as Dr. Roy notes, requires an “ongoing responsibility.” For her, this has meant a 20-year relationship as a community researcher, working on Musqueam legal cases and her own academic projects.  Being dynamic in community collaboration can also mean working closely with non-academic organizations and associations. Historians at McLean County Museum in Illinois, for example, work with theatre groups, local schools, volunteers, and local businesses to create the Evergreen Cemetery Walk. Each of these groups brings distinct expertise and modes of working to their project, requiring compromise and adaptation.

By contributing their time, demonstrating their flexibility and adaptability, and harnessing their academic resources, historians are equipped to negotiate even the most contentious issues with responsibility and thoughtfulness. Whether this negotiation involves anti-racism work, physical restoration of a site, or simply storytelling, historians can work to preserve both the tangible and intangible meanings of a desecrated historical site.

Learning from the Emanu-El cemetery desecration

In each of the cases examined, the affected community responded in a unique way to an incident of desecration. In some instances, academics contributed their expertise, while in others they did not. At the heart of each of these efforts was the aim of education; a desire to engage the public in meaningful stories, rather than enforcing increased security or punitive measures.  While the Congregation Emanu-El vigil did not involve historians, Rabbi Brechner’s response did embody this ethos of education. Rabbi Brechner’s invitation to learn the stories of those buried at the Emanu-El cemetery remained open for the Greater Victoria community, even though the perpetrator did not come forward. The vigil provided the opportunity for this learning experience; members of Victoria’s greater community performed the actions of restorative justice in order to heal the hurt of the desecration and reaffirm their stance against hatred and intolerance.


Isa Milman describing the plaque on Blanshard Street, which she collaborated on with Annie Weeks (a graphic artist in Victoria)
Dr. Erin McGuire's Anthropology Blog, where students reflect on their coursework in Emanu-El cemetery https://onlineacademiccommunity.uvic.ca/archaeograves/

Dr. Erin McGuire’s Anthropology Blog, where students reflect on their coursework in Emanu-El cemetery. See the blog here



Screen Capture from Course Blog, illustrating the scanning techniques used to recover worn inscriptions https://onlineacademiccommunity.uvic.ca/archaeograves/

Screen Capture from Course Blog, illustrating the scanning techniques used to recover worn inscriptions. See blog here



Unlike the case of c̓əsnaʔəm, the Emanu-El desecration was not seen as part of an ongoing trend of violation. As such, the congregation did not attempt to increase anti-racist education in Victoria or to add surveillance to the cemetery. Nevertheless, there were subtle outcomes of the desecration that served to reinforce the importance of the cemetery, its history, and the place of the Emanu-El community in Victoria. Though planning for the 150th anniversary of the synagogue was well underway at the time, the 2011 desecration influenced a project to install a plaque recognizing the support of the diverse group of donors who helped build the synagogue. This plaque sought to memorialize this historic moment of community solidarity for future generations. In Milman’s opinion, mentioning the desecration in the grant application for this plaque reinforced the importance of communicating Victoria’s history of tolerance and inclusivity. The plaque, today located at the corner of Blanshard and Pandora Streets, is a monument to the same ethos of awareness that the vigil served to reaffirm.

Another subtle outcome of the desecration is a field course led by University of Victoria anthropology professor Dr. Erin McGuire. Now in their second year, Dr. McGuire’s class learns about Jewish burial practices, the spatial and ecological dynamics of the cemetery, and the scanning techniques required to reveal inscriptions that have worn away.  One of the project’s final goals is to create an online map so that families who no longer live in Victoria can visit the gravesites of their loved ones. By increasing awareness of Emanu-El cemetery, and by activating the space as a place of learning, Dr. McGuire’s class helps make future violations of the site less likely. The educational ethos of this class and Milman’s plaque ensure that the history of the Congregation Emanu-El remains known in Victoria.

Closing Remarks

Four years later, the sentiments surrounding the 2011 desecration have not changed: as local newspapers at the time observed, what was most memorable was not the desecration itself, but the overwhelming support for Congregation Emanu-El and community solidarity in face of hatred and intolerance. When invited to “show how a healthy community reacts to hate crimes,” Victoria responded in force. In standing with Congregation Emanu-El that day, members of the greater Victoria community demonstrated that the values of our pluralist society require alert and ongoing protection.

There are communities in Canada whose sacred sites remain contested and at risk. Some are subject to random vandalism; others, like c̓əsnaʔəm, face more sustained threats.  The process of communicating the value of this burial site to its surrounding community remains an ongoing struggle, as demonstrated by the desecration that provoked the 200-day vigil in 2012. In this case, those present stood in protest of ongoing structural racism, rather than a singular incident of desecration. In the absence of effective heritage protection, the Musqueam First Nation have resorted to purchasing traditional lands in order to protect them. They ultimately did this with the endangered portion of c̓əsnaʔəm in 2012.  This strategy, however, is an unsustainable financial burden for many communities and should not be necessary in a country that professes to value its collective heritage. The shared respect and responsibility of the Congregation Emanu-El vigil demonstrates the potential in Canadian society to act in solidarity to protect the sacred sites of all its citizens equally. The recent publication of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada offers hope that the sacred sites of First Nations will receive greater protection in the coming years, if Canadians of all heritages instruct our leaders that such protection is a priority for us all.







Times Colonist, January 11, image courtesy of Times Colonist




We would like to thank our interviewees who acted as guides to the Emanu-El community, to the Jewish cemetery, and to understanding the strength of solidarity in face of an incident, or incidences, of intolerance and hate. As two public history students who do not belong to Congregation Emanu-El, it has been a particular privilege to gain insight and understanding of the Jewish community’s reaction to the desecration in 2011. We hope that in some small way our exhibit will preserve the memories and stories of not only this desecration, but of the massive community response it engendered.

This exhibit was researched and prepared by Alissa Cartwright and Kaitlin Findlay, with guidance provided by Alysa Routtenberg and Michael Schwartz.

Header photo courtesy Toad Hollow Photography

January 2016

Oral History Interviewees

Sarah Adams

Rabbi Harry Brechner

Ed Fitch

Mike Goldstein

Brigitte McKenzie

Isa Milman

Geoffrey Perkins

Dr. Susan Roy

Dr. Jordan Stanger-Ross

Councillor Charlayne Thornton-Joe

Joy Wilkins

Works Cited

[1] Shoshana Litman, “Jewish Cemetery-Never More Alive in Victoria,” Times Colonist (Victoria, B.C.) January 9, 2012.

[2] Cyril E. Leonoff, “The Rise of Jewish Life and Religion in British Columbia, 1858-1948,” The Scribe 28 (2008): 12.

[3] Pierre Nora, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Memoire,” Representations 26 (1989): 7-24. See especially 12.

[4] Richard V. Francaviglia, “The cemetery as an evolving cultural landscape,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 61, no. 3 (2006): 502.

[5] DeMond Shondell Miller and Jason David Riviera, “Hallowed Ground, Place, and Culture: The Cemetery and the Creation of Place.” Space and Culture 9, no. 4 (2006): 335.

[6] Barbara A. Misztal, “Durkheim on Collective Memory,” Journal of Classical Sociology 3, no. 2 (2003): 127.

[7] Steven B. Burg, “From Troubled Ground to Common Ground”: The Locust Grove African-American Cemetery Restoration Project: A Case Study of Service-Learning and Community History,” The Public Historian 30, no. 2 (2008): 55-59.

[8] Ibid., 81.