Child’s remains found at site of former residential school northeast of Edmonton

Click to play video: 'Child’s remains found at site of former Saddle Lake residential school northeast of Edmonton'
Child’s remains found at site of former Saddle Lake residential school northeast of Edmonton
The remains of a child were located by ground penetrating radar at the former Blue Quills Indian Residential School on Saddle Lake Cree Nation, northeast of Edmonton. Kabi Moulitharan reports. – Jan 24, 2024

Warning: This story deals with disturbing subject matter that may upset and trigger some readers. Discretion is advised.

The remains of a child have been located near the surface of a burial site at the former Blue Quills residential school site, northeast of Edmonton.

Members of the Acimowin Opaspiw Society (AOS) held a news conference Wednesday revealing the remains are likely of a child under the age of five. Forensic archeologists believe it was scavenged by animals.

“In October of 2023, while our ground penetrating radar operators were measuring grids, on top of a known communal grave, they discovered child skeletal remains,” said Leah Redcrow, AOS executive director. “While remains have been found, they have not been identified yet.”

The communal grave is approximately 100 metres north of the former residential school foundation.

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Now that the gravesite has been disturbed, the AOS wants to excavate the entire communal grave, “to preserve the dignity of those who died during the residential school system.”

Ground penetrating radar has been used at the site in the past, which operated as the Sacred Heart Indian Residential School between 1890 and 1931. It was run by Roman Catholic missionaries, first at Lac La Biche, then on the Saddle Lake Cree Nation. It was later renamed Blue Quills.

Officials said they have no information to help them identify the children that were found in the communal grave. Another grave site on the property lists the deaths of approximately 350 people.

“We really want to ensure that our family members get the respectful burial that they deserve. We are thinking in the best interest of the children,” Redcrow said.

Human remains were first excavated in 2004 by Jason Whiskeyjack, who was digging a new grave in the adjacent community cemetery.

“What we discovered was a mass grave…over the years we’ve been hitting (others) off and on,” said Redcrow.

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“We still bury people there and that’s how we were finding the children,” Redcrow added. “I only found out there was a residential school there in 2021. The closer that modern burials get to where the residential school foundation is- the more often and frequent they were finding unidentified child skeletal remains which were not protected in caskets, which includes this mass grave.”

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Click to play video: 'Diseased milk led to deaths of children at Saddle Lake residential school: advocacy group'
Diseased milk led to deaths of children at Saddle Lake residential school: advocacy group

The property, located about 150 kilometres northeast of Edmonton, was later moved to St. Paul where it now operates as University nuhelot’ine thaiyots’i nistameyimâkanak Blue Quills, which is governed by the seven First Nations communities that surround it.

Officials said the site has been closed to the public and secured 24-hours-a-day.

The AOS is a Blue Quills Survivor-governed non-profit based in Saddle Lake Cree Nation. In 2021, it began the Blue Quills Missing Children in Unmarked Burials Inquiry.

Redcrow went on to accuse the RCMP and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of Alberta of  “negligence and institutional racism” for refusing to investigate the discovery.

“The official authorities being the officer of the Chief Medical Examiner of Alberta and the RCMP refused to provide any forensic investigation concerning the retrieval of the child skeletal remains,” Redcrow continued. “The AOS is denouncing both authorities for their continued negligence and institutional racism towards our people.”

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In a statement to Global News, Cst. Kelsey Davidge with the RCMP said “the RCMP is fully committed to supporting Indigenous and First Nation communities across Canada. There are processes supported by the Government of Canada that are being used to identify the lands and the locations of unmarked graves across the County.”

“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,” the statement continued. “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.”

In 2023, the AOS revealed a report that said the majority of the students at the school died from tuberculosis contracted by drinking unpasteurized raw cow’s milk from livestock kept on site.

Between Aug. 9 and 13, 2022, Kisha Supernant, the director of the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology at the University of Alberta, led an investigation into the burial site using ground penetrating radar which uncovered 19 anomalies characterized as ‘reflections of interest,’ meaning they have traits consistent with burials but admitted more analysis was needed at the time.

The AOS is working with the International Commission on Missing Persons in The Hague, Netherlands, on plans to move forward with a humanitarian recovery investigation in conjunction with the International Commission on Missing Persons.

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The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program has a hotline to help residential school survivors and their relatives suffering trauma invoked by the recall of past abuse. The number is 1-866-925-4419.

The Hope for Wellness Help Line provides immediate, toll-free telephone and online-chat based emotional support and crisis intervention to all Indigenous Peoples in Canada. This service is available 24/7 in English and French, and upon request in Cree, Ojibway, and Inuktitut.


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