Finding the truth: Unearthing legacies of Indigenous burial sites in Alberta

Local Indigenous community members are pushing for greater awareness about the history of the land of what is now Edmonton.

Calls to search sites of former residential schools in Canada are growing louder and local First Nations are saying not only should all those sites be searched but other historic areas used for burial as well.

Chief Calvin Bruneau of the Papaschase First Nation told CTV News Edmonton that after hearing about the discovery of the remains of 215 children on a former residential school site in Kamloops made him think not of a school but a site that is known as the "Indian Hospital."

The Charles Camsell Building, in what is now Edmonton’s Inglewood neighbourhood, was used as a tuberculosis hospital for First Nations and Inuit patients.

“It was known as Indian Hospital because that’s where a lot of our people went back then and a lot of people came and got treated and left – but some didn’t make it back home,” he said.

While there is a dedicated Indigenous cemetery in St. Albert, Bruneau believes strongly that there are adults and children still buried there and has wanted ground searches for decades.

“It’s more than a belief,” Bruneau said. “We got research and documents – even a map – that shows in the southeast corner of that property where potential human remains are.”

“Either it’s covered up or human remains get moved,” he added. “I’d like to investigate there still and to see definitively if there is a cemetery still.”

For Bruneau, knowing if there are remains is important not only to bring closure to descendants but also to ensure the truth is documented.

Especially since a new apartment complex is being planned to be built on the site.

“It’s a sacred site,” Bruneau said. “So we got to decide what to do with that area if we do find human remains.”

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Kisha Supernant, an archeologist and director of the University of Alberta’s Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology, has used ground-penetrating radar at several sites across western Canada to find unmarked burial locations.

Canadians must recognize that there is a deeper history to the land beneath their feet, she says.

“I know how common it is for there to be schools with burial places that are unmarked and potentially where the deaths are undocumented,” she shared. “Indigenous communities and families have these stories. They know that their children went missing or died.

“Sometimes we need the scientific evidence to help demonstrate that to the broader public,” she added. “I hope for a world where it is not necessary for us to have to do that. But it does help.”

For Supernant, there needs to be more work to identify not only grave sites around residential schools, but sites used as traditional cemeteries to ensure final resting places can be adequately protected and used for ceremonies

“There’s probably many more unmarked burial locations throughout Alberta,” Supernant said. “Certainly around residential schools, but there’s other contexts as well (like) historic cemeteries that don’t have graves marked anymore. That don’t have fencing. It’s just part of the legacy.”

Supernant, who is Métis and a descendant of the Papaschase First Nation, identified a potential traditional grave site used by Papschase First Nation people in southeast Edmonton.

Back in 2019 she worked with the Papschase First Nation to help locate the unmarked burial site.

“I know enough about the history to know there are many other places like this across the lands we call Canada.”

In Supernant’s view, locating sites like this is important for ceremony but also to ensure proper respect can be paid to those who are buried there just like at any other graveyard.

“I would like to see (sites like these) be a place where you can’t build or disturb the graves,” she said.

Contact the Indian Residential School Survivors Society toll-free 1 (800) 721-0066 or 24-hour Crisis Line 1 (866) 925-4419 if you require further emotional support or assistance.

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Dan Grummett and Touria Izri