Investigators say if excavation doesn’t happen soon, animals will continue to disturb the site
WARNING: This story contains distressing details
CBC Indigenous: A group investigating a suspected communal grave near the site where Blue Quills (Sacred Heart) residential school stood in Saddle Lake Cree Nation in Alberta says it hopes to begin an excavation as early as this summer.
Leah Redcrow, CEO of Acimowin Opaspiw Society (AOS), which represents survivors of Blue Quills residential school, said excavation is necessary at this point. “It’s either we have to get it done or we let nature continue to do it and it’ll be a very, very, very horrific situation that will unfold within the next couple of years,” she said.
At a news conference on Wednesday, AOS defined a communal grave or pit as an area containing more than one set of human remains “where the circumstances surrounding the death and body disposal method warrant an investigation.”
Redcrow said while excavation of graves is difficult, survivors who heard about the plans were supportive. “I think they just felt a lot of relief,” she said. “They want the children buried respectfully.”
Blue Quills residential school was located first in Lac La Biche, Alta., before moving to Saddle Lake from 1898 to 1931, then to St. Paul, Alta.
AOS, which was formed in 2021, is searching the Saddle Lake site of the school, about 170 kilometres northeast of Edmonton.
In October 2023, operators were setting up grids for ground penetrating radar on the suspected burials when they discovered skeletal remains of at least one child above ground.
Forensic anthropologist Soren Brau with the International Commission on Missing Persons determined the remains to be those of a child under five, although the identity of the child or children is still unknown.
Redcrow said AOS investigators believe the remains were uncovered by animals.
“We don’t feel any child deserves to be in a communal pit and have their bodies disinterred by animals,” she said.
AOS board member Jason Whiskeyjack said he found remains in the area in 2004. At the time, Whiskeyjack said, he did not know the remains could be connected to the residential school because there’s limited oral history about it due to its age. “Our parents never really taught us anything about residential schools because they wanted to forget it,” Whiskeyjack said.
Lead archeologist Scott Hamilton said they’ve been able to establish that the burial site is connected to the school by comparing overhead photographs from the 1940s — when some of the school and church buildings were still standing — with modern photos and maps of the area. The remains were found about 100 metres from the former school building, he said.
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Redcrow said many in the community, including her, were unaware of the former school site until 2021.
The site is near the community’s cemetery and they said accidental excavations have happened repeatedly over the years. All of the remains that have been accidentally uncovered over the years were immediately reburied and tobacco was laid, she said.
“Essentially what’s happening is the closer that modern burials get to where the residential school foundation is, the more often and frequent they were finding unidentified child skeletal remains in the ground,” Redcrow said.
AOS is holding engagement meetings for descendants of Blue Quills survivors throughout the province in February and March. They said they hope to hear stories from family members of survivors who attended the school between 1898 and 1931 to uncover more information ahead of the excavation.
AOS member and former Saddle Lake chief Eric Shirt, who attended Blue Quills in St. Paul, said there’s a significant lack of anecdotal evidence due to how long ago the school was in Saddle Lake. He said he hopes the engagement sessions uncover more stories to help identify remains.
AOS said it denounced the RCMP and Alberta’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner for not responding to requests for help.
CBC News reached out to the Alberta Medical Examiner for comment for this story but did not hear back by time of publishing.
Redcrow said the medical examiner’s office refused to meet with them and that the RCMP would not agree to search the suspected burial site because of its proximity to the community cemetery. Alberta RCMP said the decision to search the grounds does not solely belong to them and that they are “not opposed to conducting an archeological survey of the grounds, but it is a process that has been established by various federal agencies and departments” as well as First Nations and other stakeholders.
As the search for evidence continues, Redcrow urged community members to refrain from retribution against churches. “Parishes hold the histories and records of our family members,” she said, adding the information is vital for revealing the truth of residential schools.
AOS investigators said they now believe 335 children died while at the school — an increase from their prior estimates, based on more thorough examination of parish records.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available to provide support for survivors and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour service at 1-866-925-4419.
Mental health counselling and crisis support are also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Samantha Schwientek is a reporter with CBC Indigenous based in amiskwacîwâskahikan (Edmonton). She is a member of the Cayuga nation of the Six Nations of the Grand River, and previously worked at CBC Nova Scotia.