Finding and honouring unmarked burials of Indigenous people in Alberta multi-year, 'monumental' effort: experts


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WARNING: This story contains details about the history of Indian residential schools some readers may find distressing.

It will take a “monumental” effort to properly identify, investigate and commemorate unmarked Indigenous burial sites and deal with related trauma in Alberta, experts say.

In the wake of the discovery of the remains of 215 children in unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in May, Alberta Indigenous Affairs Minister Rick Wilson said in late May the government will help fund research into the undocumented deaths and burials of hundreds of Indigenous children.

On Friday, Premier Jason Kenney said details of a multimillion-dollar package will be announced this week.

Crystal Fraser, an assistant history professor at the University of Alberta who specializes in residential schools, said the work in Alberta will be “monumental” and could take decades.


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“On the archival side, this can take a career’s worth of work,” said Fraser, who is Gwichyà Gwich’in and originally from Inuvik and Dachan Choo Gę̀hnjik in the Northwest Territories.

The federal government has made the remaining $27 million of $33.8-million first pledged in its 2019 budget available to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation to work on the National Residential School Student Death Register.

Saskatchewan announced last week it’s spending $2 million, and Ontario has recently committed $10 million towards provincial efforts to investigate and honour the deaths of children who went missing at residential schools.

However, the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report said that there were at least 821 children, named and unnamed, who died in residential schools in Alberta between 1867 and 2000 — the most of any province or territory — although there are no definitive, reliable figures.

The TRC estimated there could have been more than 4,100 deaths across Canada, but Fraser believes there are far more, partly because many records haven’t been made available, and partly because some schools didn’t keep appropriate records in the first place.

“Families don’t know where their loved ones were buried. This was the way the system worked,” she said, adding residential schools were part of a larger system designed to dismantle families and to break Indigenous lineage and identities.


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The TRC’s report noted that Indigenous children in residential schools died at a far higher rate than school-aged children in the general population, many parents were not told of their children’s sickness or death, and children were buried away from their families in long-neglected graves.

“It is clear that Indian Affairs was opposed, for cost reasons, to shipping the bodies of deceased children to their home communities,” the report says.

Fraser cautioned governments not to impose tight deadlines, but to give communities the opportunity to do the work properly, saying the Alberta government needs to commit enough long-term funding to show it’s serious.

“Given Kenney’s record on how he grapples with the residential school legacy, I don’t have a lot of confidence that what will be announced will be enough,” said Fraser. She pointed to comments made by the premier’s former speechwriter Paul Bunner that were criticized as being racist, the public statements of former curriculum adviser Chris Champion downplaying the severity of residential school abuse, and Kenney’s allegiance to the legacy of John A. Macdonald, who played a large role in Canada’s residential school system.

Kisha Supernant, a University of Alberta archeology professor who is Métis and a Papaschase First Nation descendant, also said the work in Alberta will require a lot of support for Indigenous communities to lead the work in cooperation with each other, including building specialized capacity.


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She works with Indigenous communities to survey unmarked burial sites and said the work ahead goes well beyond time-consuming ground-penetrating radar scans, echoing Fraser’s concern that communities can’t be rushed to do the work to take advantage of a funding deadline.

“There is no school in Alberta that has had that full comprehensive research done around the children that went missing there. All 25 (officially recognized sites) need some level of work, and some will be further along that path than others,” she said.

Supernant said the effort needs to involve speaking with survivors, doing the kind of archival work Fraser is doing, geographical mapping, community consultation and putting psychological supports in place. She said she’s skeptical the amount from the federal government and provinces will be enough given the scope and the scale of work yet to be done.

She suggested the province could create a body to help with planning, expertise, data gathering and supports.

Fraser and Supernant noted there were many institutions across the province that operated in much the same way as residential schools, including the Charles Camsell Hospital in Edmonton that housed patients with tuberculosis from the Northwest Territories, Yukon and Nunavut, who in many cases were taken without their consent, died and were buried far from home.

“There are many places in Edmonton that have unmarked burials of Indigenous people,” Supernant said.

And, it could take between two to four years for a historian like Fraser to scan the archival material related to just one location, Fraser said.

The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line is available 24-hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of a residential school experience. Support is available at 1-866-925-4419.


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