First Nation organization denounces Alta. government, RCMP for lack of assistance in excavating communal grave

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Leah Redcrow, executive director for the Acimowin Opaspiw Society or AOS, says both Alberta’s chief medical examiner and the RCMP are failing to aid in the search of an unmarked communal grave at the former Blue Quills (also called Sacred Heart) Indian Residential School.

“The RCMP [and the Alberta chief medical examiner refused to provide any forensic investigation support concerning the child’s skeletal remains. Therefore, the AOS is denouncing both authorities for the continued negligence and institutional racism against our people,” said Redcrow at a news conference in Enoch Cree Nation on Wednesday.

The press release and press conference used the terms communal grave and mass grave throughout. The bodies found so far have been found in white shrouds not caskets, and due to soil erosion only a foot or so beneath the surface. AOS did not release a total number of suspected bodies in the grave but indicated that there are 15 missing people documented at the school.

The reasons for a communal grave have not been given and AOS has not found documentation for these deaths in the records obtained by AOS so far. The burials are communal rather than in individual plots.

APTN News reached out the the Alberta RCMP for a response.

“The Alberta RCMP 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.

“It is not solely the decision of the Alberta RCMP to proceed with further study of the grounds – many governmental, academic, First Nations, and cultural groups need to be consulted before exhumations occur,” said spokesperson Kelsey Davidge.

At the press conference, Redcrow spoke alongside elected members of the Saddle Lake Cree Nation and said the organization was working with both the St. Paul Diocese and the International Commission on Missing Persons out of Haag, Switzerland.

The AOS has been performing ground penetrating radar surveys since 2020 after the skeletal remains of a child were accidentally unearthed in 2004 by Jason Whiskeyjack who was digging a grave in the cemetery for a community member who had died.

“I accidentally hit a mass grave. It was less than a meter down,” said Whiskeyjack.

Soren Blau, the head of forensic archeology and anthropology at the commission confirmed that the remains found at Blue Quills so far are human.

“Following a review of numerous photographs, I was able to confirm that the photographs depict human cranial, postcranial and digital remains…given these initial observations the International Commission on Missing Persons recommend that further investigations are undertaken, “ she said.

AOS has reported on other deaths at the school as a part of its research. It will be holding information sessions for communities who had students attending the Blue Quills residential school between 1898 and 1931. More information will be available on their website.

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According to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, Roman Catholic missionaries established a boarding school at Lac la Biche, around 230 km from Edmonton, in 1891. The buildings were moved to Saddle Lake First Nation in 1898 and was renamed Blue Quills at that time.

The Centre lists 27 students who died at the school. But Redcrow said that with records from the St. Paul Diocese they are reporting a death toll as high as 335. They have used records from both the local diocese and the Oblates of Mary Immaculate.

“The main religious order we are experiencing communication barriers with are the Sisters of Charity. They will not give us their Sisters Chronicles and we need them,” she said.

APTN News contacted the Sisters of Charity but did not immediately hear back.

The chief medical officer of health did not respond to a request for comment by APTN.


Correction: An earlier version of the story incorrectly listed the Chief Medical Officer of Health but the position being referred to is in fact the Chief Medical Examiner.

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