Fading memory, fragmented records and the passage of time keep some residential school truths hidden forever

It was at about 3:30 p.m. on a Friday in January 1958 when the truck pulled up next to the Edmonton Indian Residential School with a coffin from the hospital.

(Norman Yakeleya, the NWT MLA for the Sahtu, says the federal government needs to fund the continued search for the children who never came home from residential schools. APTN/Photo)

By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
It was at about 3:30 p.m. on a Friday in January 1958 when the truck pulled up next to the Edmonton Indian Residential School with a coffin from the hospital.

George Muldoe, 13 at the time, was in charge of the grave digging. He and two other boys had a shovel and pick for the job. He remembers bone-chilling cold, maybe -30C, when they started hewing at the frozen ground until dark.

They dug all day Saturday and into Sunday.

“It took us over two days to bury one person,” said Muldoe, who is now 71 and attended the residential school from 1951 to 1962.

Muldoe was from the Gitxsan community of Kispiox in British Columbia but the children from his area were sent to the United Church-run residential school in Alberta. The children were put on a train for a three-hour ride and fed spoiled baloney sandwiches.

He can’t erase the memory of the grave digging.

“The only way to get rid of this is when we die, it’s the only way. You never get rid of it period,” he said.

He buried three coffins, all from the Camsell Hospital where Inuit and Dene suffering from tuberculosis in the Northern territories were sent for treatment. He said they dug the graves with no supervision from school officials.

Muldoe believes at least two First Nation students from his home region are buried on the grounds around residential school which sat about 16 kilometres northwest of Edmonton near St. Albert, Alta. The school operated from 1924 to 1968.

He also said the coffins were buried “helter-skelter” around the school and that an area currently identified as the site of the cemetery does not hold the bodies.

“It’s a cover-up, the people we buried they say are buried there and they’re not buried there,” said Muldoe. “We buried them all over the school yard.”

Muldoe said the unmarked coffins were buried with no crosses or gravestones.

A stone marker sits at the disputed location of the cemetery and it lists 98 names, home communities and ages of those believed to be have been buried there. A handful of those listed are either children or teenagers. The official story claims the plots were marked by white crosses destroyed in a 1969 grass fire.

A United Church investigation also found evidence that eight students died at the residential school, but not evidence that any of them were buried on the grounds.

United Church Rev. Cecile Fausak, liaison minister with the Indigenous justice and residential schools committee, also disputes Muldoe’s assertions that there was no supervision or order to the grave digging.

“They were told where to dig the graves according to a map,” said Fausak.

Fausak said it may be impossible to ever conclusively determine where the coffins are buried as a result of shifting landscapes and the passage of time.

“It’s frustrating, you wish you could find out for sure, but you will never know,” she said.

Memory, fragmented records and the passage of time make the hunt for truth in the shadows of the past incredibly complex and difficult.

Often, the search leads to incomplete truths, as in the case for the search of students who died at the Red Deer Industrial School which was replaced by the Edmonton Residential School.

The Red Deer school operated from 1893 to 1919 and the United Church was able to determine that at least 11 students were buried at the school by sifting through the records of 325 students. A search of the suspected cemetery, however, revealed a much higher number. Ground-scraping, which removes the top six inches of soil to get a better sense of the past topography of an area, uncovered the likelihood of 19 grave sites.

Further research uncovered the names of four additional students who died at the school from Spanish flu. Researchers uncovered a letter from the principal to the department of Indian Affairs requesting reimbursement for the cost of sending the bodies to be buried in the municipal cemetery.

Who lies in the other graves may never be known. A records gap for the school exists between 1915 and 1919.

“There are just so many complexities” said Fausak.

And it is these complexities that make it highly unlikely the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), with a little more than year left in its mandate, will be able to determine how many students died at residential schools.

So far the TRC has confirmed 4,100 deaths, but that number is expected to rise as the commission sifts through death records recently received from British Columbia and Alberta. The TRC is still waiting to get its hands on records from Manitoba and Ontario, which has the largest collection. Quebec has ignored the commission’s request for the death records of First Nations youth you died during the residential school era.

Norman Yakeleya, the NWT MLA for the Sahtu, says the federal government needs to fund the continued search for the children who never came home from residential schools.

“What happened to the children? We have to set up a special agency, an inquiry, whatever you want to call it, for the parents of children who haven’t come back,” he said. “Let’s give them that.”

Yakeleya experienced sexual abuse at the Grollier Hall residential school in Inuvik. He was part of a massive sexual assault RCMP investigation that led to the conviction of four former supervisors from the school.

Yakeleya said Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s 2008 apology failed to include the parents of the missing children.

“The apology failed to honour the mothers and the parents of the children who did not return back to their parents. There were thousands of children and Harper didn’t apologize to the moms and the dads,” he said. “This is a big deal.”

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