Keith Gerein: Edmonton residential school survivor calls for investigation of graves, including one he dug


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The ground, as expected, was frozen solid in January 1958 on the sprawling property of the Edmonton Indian Residential School.

Still, that didn’t stop the school’s United Church leaders from ordering a small group of Indigenous students to dig a grave on land behind the principal’s house.

The teenagers were given one shovel and one pick ax. It took them three days to carve out a hole deep enough to bury an adult man, who was delivered in a body bag. None of the students was told who he was or from where he came.

“We started on a Friday afternoon and finished late Sunday night,” said George Muldoe, who was 16 at the time. “We had no choice. They said, ‘You, you, you — grave detail.’

“When we were done, none of us said anything. We just covered him up and we left. There was nobody else there, no family, not even staff from the school, even though we had a preacher.”

Today, the number of similar graves, their precise location, and the identity of the people who filled them remain largely a mystery at the former residential school site, located on the east side of St. Albert.


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Muldoe, now 79 years old and a member of the Kispiox First Nation in northern B.C., thinks it’s long past time those questions were answered. He, his wife and others have been advocating for years to have a proper investigation of the graves, perhaps by using ground-penetrating radar.

George Muldoe on Aug. 31, 2003. John Lucas/Postmedia, file
George Muldoe on Aug. 31, 2003. John Lucas/Postmedia, file Photo by John Lucas /Edmonton Journal

This summer, more than a half-century after the school closed, he may finally get his wish.

“I’ve been getting calls from Alberta and the wheels are turning,” he said, without offering more details. “I’ll be going back (to Edmonton) for the September long weekend, and hopefully it will be done by then.”

Such radar is the technology credited for the recent discovery of a mass unmarked grave containing the remains of 215 children at a former school near Kamloops, B.C. The horrific revelation provided a particularly painful reminder — how many do we need? — of the atrocity of the country’s residential school system, prompting calls for investigations of other burials.

Among Alberta’s 25 schools was the St. Albert Youville residential school, a Roman Catholic institution that operated in what is now the centre of St. Albert beside Mission Park. It closed in 1948 and virtually nothing remains of it today.

As for whether there might be uninvestigated grave sites in and around that area, the evidence is unclear. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission lists 44 names of students who died during the years the school operated, but how many were buried locally is unknown.


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As for the Edmonton Indian Residential School, where Muldoe attended, little also remains of the original campus. The school closed in 1968 after 44 years of operation. The main building was destroyed by unidentified arsonists in 2000.

Since the 1970s the property has been used for healing as the Poundmaker’s Lodge Treatment Centre.

But the bodies are still there, underfoot.

We know this not just from Muldoe’s account, but from other former students. One was George Brertton, who told the Edmonton Journal in 2003 about the times when he was ordered to dig graves, including those for the caskets of children.

“I had a lot of nightmares about that. We had to dig these holes so far down,” said Brertton. “I remember yelling and screaming in my sleep because I thought I was going to get buried in one of those holes. There’s hundreds of them around here.”

Brertton went on to be an instructor at the University of Blue Quills, partly housed in a former residential school building near St. Paul. He died in 2013.

Who were these people covertly buried through the forced labour of children? There’s a reasonable possibility that many were First Nations and Inuit patients of the Charles Camsell tuberculosis hospital — a facility with its own dark history.

It’s also possible some of the buried were students. The TRC website shows the names of nine who died, though it’s hard to know how exhaustive a list that is.

As for further research of these and other former school sites, it’s important that survivors, their families and Indigenous communities take the time to decide how to proceed.


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Should investigations be desired, there will be, thankfully, public funding available for radar and other techniques to learn more about burials —­ though I have to say it is infuriating that it took 215 bodies to shock governments to finally act.

“I firmly believe we should really be finding them all,” said Edmonton’s historian laureate Amber Paquette, who is Metis. “Not only do we as Indigenous communities need to know where these children are, all of Canada needs to know exactly what kind of legacy and damage has been done.”

Survivors have long given their accounts of the terrors they experienced. Sexual and physical abuse, poor nutrition, torture, the banning of Indigenous languages and practices, and the trauma of being separated from parents.

Imagine, then, the ultimate insult to those parents of never seeing their children return from those schools, and being told little to nothing of where they were buried or how they died — whether by illness, accident, exposure or violence.

If further investigations can provide even a hint of those answers, then I have to think the difficult process is worth the cost.

Edmontonians and Albertans should know we are only at the beginning of this.

There’s a lot more pain to come, and it will be as hard as the ground George Muldoe was forced to dig 63 years ago.


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