WARNING: This article contains disturbing content.
Painful memories surfaced for residential school survivors, their family members and others who attended an event in Sturgeon County north of Edmonton on Tuesday to connect with others about a dark chapter in Canada’s history.
“I know where some of the graves are,” George Muldoe told reporters at the site of the former Edmonton Indian Residential School, also known as the Edmonton Poundmaker residential school.
“People (were) burying people — and it was quite often.”
For weeks now, Canada’s residential school system has been thrust back into the national spotlight after ground-penetrating radar surveys revealed hundreds of unmarked graves at former school sites in Western Canada.
From the 1870s until 1996, over 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children were placed in dozens of residential schools across the country, often despite their parents’ opposition. In many cases, they were then forbidden from speaking their language or maintaining their culture. Many students were subjected to abuse of all kinds, and the schools saw high mortality rates. In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission said the church-run and government-funded schools amounted to nothing short of a “cultural genocide.”
Muldoe said he was sent to the Edmonton-area school from B.C. in the 1950s because residential schools in that province were full. He said that for decades, he has been pushing government officials to exhume the bodies of children he knows were buried near the school. He said he knows because he was one of the students tasked with burying someone when he was a teen.
“It was January — probably -30 C,” he recalled. “I’ll never forget.”
Muldoe said his two helpers were younger than him and burying the body took them three days. He said students were often told to bury other children, and it was never clear to him how the school officials picked who would do the job.
“There was never a preacher. There was no relatives… Nobody,” he said. “A truck would just literally throw them off the truck… (and then) it was up to us.”
Muldoe said as far as he knows, those asked to bury other children were never told how they died.
“It’s got to be dealt with,” he said of the enormous task of finding the bodies of children who never got to return home. “I don’t think they’ll ever find everybody.”
“Some of the people… fetuses, were cooked in furnaces, fire barrels — stuff like that… If you guys read the whole story, you’d never sleep again.”
Muldoe, now 79, said he first arrived at the Edmonton-area residential school when he was nine. He said he was 15 when he was told to bury someone’s body.
Muldoe said he wants to ensure that the truth about Canada’s residential school system is taught in schools and that Canada is held accountable for what happened. He said he also desperately wants change when it comes to the ongoing removal of Indigenous children from their communities through the country’s child welfare system.
After the Methodist Church closed its industrial school in Red Deer in 1919, it reopened in 1924 as the Edmonton Poundmaker residential school. The federal government took over administration of the school in 1967 before closing it a year later. It is now the home of the Poundmaker’s Lodge, an Indigenous addiction treatment centre.
This week’s two-day event was put on by the Poundmaker’s Lodge, which said the goal of the gathering was “to honour and show our support to all Indian Residential School survivors.” The organization also wants to preserve the history of the area and to help foster healing from the trauma caused by residential schools.
Deborah Lloyd, an educator who considers herself a second-generation survivor, said her mother was sent to the Edmonton Poundmaker residential school.
“She was very quiet about her residential school experience,” Lloyd said. “It’s been highly, highly emotional for me because my mother passed away two years ago.”
Several years ago, she said she drove with her mother to the site and can still remember how shaken her mother seemed to be by being near the school.
“She crouched over to me,” Lloyd said. “It was like she didn’t want to be close to the residential school.
“I could sense her grief… (She said), ‘Over there, there’s bodies’… I knew that she had trauma then.”
Lloyd said she came to the gathering this week to connect with others and to help her prepare for her own family members’ healing journeys.
“Since I’ve been here, I’ve met other survivors and realize what it was like for my mom here,” she said, adding that she was deeply moved by things she heard from survivors.
“To have them declare that they had come here to take their spirits home was highly… It just affected me in such a visceral way. Then I realized, that’s why I had to come here, to take my mom’s spirit home.”
The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program has a hotline to help residential school survivors and their relatives suffering with trauma invoked by the recall of past abuse. The number is 1-866-925-4419.